no job to big

I enter town by an alley off the railroad adjoining the parking lot for G&R Excavating and Demolition — “The Professional Homewreckers,” they call themselves. “No Job to Big or Small.” Sic. Walking into town on a quiet Sunday morning to use my sister-in-law’s computer, my route takes me along the railroad tracks and under I-99, where the 35-year-old overpass is undergoing extensive reconstruction. Workers have wrapped the massive steel girders with chainlink fence and covered that with burlap. It reminds me of a pupating caterpillar, the difference being of course that when it emerges from its chrysalis it will still be a highway bridge. I glance back at the end of our mountain, and see that it’s topped by a wisp of cloud that belies its diminuitive elevation: the sun-struck forest exhaling into the crisp morning air.

book of coal

My great great aunt Mary, stern unmarried schoolteacher from the hard-coal country of eastern Pennsylvania where all my mother’s people hail from, gave each of us boys when we were small a figurine carved from anthracite. Mine was a book, closed up like a sandwich and unmarred by any words, either on the cover or the spine. One of the others was a three-inch mug; I forget the third. Our parents put them away in the china closet, saying they were fragile and we could have them when we grew up. They therefore took on all the characteristics of a bequest.

Despite these precautions, at some point the book of coal got dropped, I forget by whom, and one of the corners sheared off — a clean break. Dad glued it back together with epoxy. I keep it now in a little shrine I made from an antique cabinet television. It keeps company with a bowl of plastic fruit, an empty syringe, the skeleton of a mouse, and a pitcher full of spent bullet casings. I might like it better for being cracked, and for fitting so perfectly in the palm of my hand. I rap on it now and then for good luck. It was wood once.

Improbable doorways, hello. I’m walking off a drunk — a stagger-stepped and deliberate go at keeping the ground in its place. Down the deserted road two miles, growing steadily more sure-footed, then left through the sleeping village and around the gate into Ikkyu’s old temple, which I’ve explored several times by daylight.

Nothing stirs. The white gravel path is just visible, and I crunch past the meditation hall. I approach the bell in its hillside hanger, an immense shadow in the shape of an inverted sake cup. I stab its three-ton chest with my big finger. Hey! You think you so smart? You come to my temple, at Shao-lin!

No answer. I crouch down, remembering the Noh play where a monk leaps into a bell to escape a serpent. I crab-walk under, then cautiously stand, groping the cold metal.

The ancient bell is noisy with breathing. Startled, I bang my head, and there’s the faintest of reverberations, echoing for several heartbeats. This is not a hat, I whisper. A hat. A hat.

Among the living, I would be pelagic, a petrel teetering on fixed wings above a fleet of sailfish. Among the petrels, I would be a fulmar, & ward off threats to my one-egg hoard with deadly projectile vomit. I am held here by a morass of trivial recollections, like Rachel pinned to her camel-hump stool by the guilty pile of gods hidden beneath it. I remember a line in a novel I read decades ago that sparked an enduring self-consciousness about the crescents of dirt under my fingernails. I remember as a kid discovering a lone raspberry cane out in the field that was dotted with dried & shrunken fruit — that feeling of sadness at a minor treasure even the sparrows overlooked. I remember hearing a Chopin piano sonata once when I was so sleep-deprived that the mere effort of listening made my chest ache. The black and the white keys were equally painful. I’ve forgotten most insults & humiliations except for those I perpetrated, which fill me with a baleful light, like an all-night laundromat. I remember, because it’s still embarassing, how old I was when I finally realized that heat lightning was nothing but ordinary lightning, too far to hear & hidden by the curve of the earth.

Night opened on her stalk and fed me a nectar of endless recursion: I am watching myself watching myself watching myself live a life, duly insured and mortgaged and stumbling over toy wagons blocking the walk. I am taking her literal nipple into my mouth and reaching for a waist as smooth as smoked glass, until the sound of chewing wakes me and I lie in the dark trying to remember what’s real. In the morning, will I really find a fist-sized hole behind the kitchen sink crawling with carpenter ants? Will the porcupine chatter at me from behind a non-functioning church organ in my dining room? And what about the mice pulling their tails through their teeth? Outside the window, a dry retching as the feral housecat regurgitates her own black fur. It could be anything.

chipmunk with red elderberry

Father’s Day dawned clear and cool. After making an appointment with my dad to cut his hair later in the morning, I took my camera for a walk. Along the Road to the Far Field, in one of the large clearings created by the icestorm of 2005, I surprised a chipmunk next to a fruiting red elderberry bush. It froze when I hove into view, and the bright sun might’ve helped dazzle it a little as I inched closer for a clear shot through the brambles. Ecologists who study the effects of deer on forest health consider red elderberry a good indicator of low browse pressure, and we’ve been happy to watch its spread through moister portions of the property in recent years, thanks to the abundant patience and excellent marksmanship of our hunter friends. As this photo graphically demonstrates, lower deer numbers are good news not just for plants, but for other animals, too.

old mayapple leaf

I made my way to the thicket below the Far Field, where I knew the dense carpet of mayapples would be entering their autumn now as their fruits approached maturity. First they break out in a rash of yellow spots. Then larger areas of brown appear around their edges, turning them thin and brittle as old newspaper.

A few paces into the woods, in a patch of shade too dark to permit a decent photo without a tripod, I found a dense network of slime on the ground, as if a snail had been trying to weave a spider web. Then as I circled the field on a path I’d mowed just a few days earlier, I found two orange and olive tentacles poking out of the ground, foul-smelling and rubbery to the touch, about four inches long and half an inch in diameter at the base. They were in bright sunlight, but still I managed to screw up and didn’t get a single clear photo.

orange tentacle

This was the best I could do. It reminded me of a web comic I’d seen recently, in which an apparently fortuitous discovery has unpleasant repercussions. They turned out to be stinkhorns of the Mutinus genus, which lack the bulbous heads of their Phallus cousins: probably Mutinus elegans.

Many of the metaphors we use to try and come to grips with the inherent weirdness of nature aren’t terribly accurate, but the association of stinkhorns with human sex organs is right on target. In Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, author Nicholas P. Money writes,

Most of the volume of the erect fruiting body is air. But mechanically speaking, the stinkhorn is comparable with the mammalian penis because both erections are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than a column of solid tissue. The penis contains flattened reservoirs that become engorged with blood, while the tissue of the stinkhorn receptacle is built to tear apart to make a honeycomb supported by pressurized water within its hyphae.

One major difference, of course, is that mammalian erections don’t bulge with fertile spores or smell like rotting corpses, and aren’t designed to be eaten by flies and slugs, which will plant the seeds of a new generation of stinkhorns in their excrement.

That wasn’t the only place where bizarre reproductive rituals were taking place. All along the top edge of the field, the 17-year cicadas were singing and flying, clicking and crawling through the scrubby locust trees — appropriately enough, given their alternate common name, “17-year locusts.” I shot a video and posted it to the Plummer’s Hollow site, in an entry headlined “Cicada courtship in full swing.” I like the way biologists persist in referring to mating behavior as courtship: such an old-fashioned word, conjuring up visions of hay rides, shucking bees, and minuets in the parlor.

Ebony Jewelwing, from the Undiscovery Channel.

I was surprised to see several male ebony jewelwing damselflies on the ridgetop, half a mile at least from the nearest stream. They were, however, engaged in classic jewelwing flit-and-pause behavior. I like the video not just for the jewelwing — which is out-of-focus part of the time — but the soundtrack, which features a wood thrush, a scarlet tanager, a pileated woodpecker, chipmunks, and a train whistle, all set against a background surf of cicadas. (This was a couple hundred yards in from the edge of the field.)

In Indian musical theory, I’m told, the drone note symbolizes the inescapable horizon. Over the past week, the cicada chorus has contributed an almost constant, high-pitched drone as a backdrop to other elements of the soundscape. And from my front porch, first thing in the morning, that drone does literally emanate from the eastern horizon: the crest of Laurel Ridge, where the sun first strikes. By mid-morning, though, the cicada choruses become more dispersed.

mountain laurel

Speaking of Laurel Ridge, the mountain laurel was at its height of bloom yesterday, meaning that no more blossoms remained in bud — and that the earliest blossoms were already on the ground. As decimated as the laurel has been by winter-kill and diseases over the past six or seven years, we didn’t expect to see the woods turned white with their blossoms ever again, but this year comes close to the way it used to be every other year, back in the 90s and before. 2008 has been a remarkable year for flowering shrubs and trees of every description, from shadbush and red maple to wild azalea and tulip poplar.

When I got back to the house, I dug out my barber’s kit, we found an old sheet, and I had Dad sit on the veranda for his haircut. He’s slowly healing from surgery to remove a tumor on his lower spine last month, which involved slicing into the dura mater and coming right up against a cluster of nerves. Enough pain and numbness remain to make a trip to the barbershop seem like a daunting prospect.

The hair was thin and didn’t take long to cut — a scattering of tufts on the concrete floor. A half hour later, when Dad came out on the veranda again for some reason, he saw them there and couldn’t figure out what they were for a second. “That can’t be my hair!” he said. It had been silver for what seemed like forever, I guess, but now it was undeniably white, as white as snow. In a morning full of surprises, the passing of time was still the most surprising thing of all. I’m sure the 17-year cicadas would agree.

Video link

What is wrong with me that I so rarely listen to recorded music anymore? It’s not that I prefer to make my own music; weeks can go by without me picking up the harmonica. But I don’t feel especially deprived, either, because I hear birdsong all day long, interspersed with train whistles and other sounds. And I do love that.

Even more pleasurable, to me, is the feeling of what I can only call musical sobriety. Back in the days of my musical addiction, 15 and 20 years ago, if a record wasn’t playing in the background, I didn’t feel right. And it seemed as if I had to play tunes I liked in order to drown out the annoying tunes that would somehow get lodged in my head on infinite repeat — so-called ear worms.

That turned out not to be the case. Now that I rarely make a point of listening to recorded music, I rarely get ear worms, either. When I do pick up the harmonica, I generally play the same couple dozen tunes, but that’s O.K. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be a real musician. Even at the height of my music addiction, I could never stomach the endless repetitions that true practice entails.

By the same token, I don’t suppose many musicians can fathom how we writers can stand to go over and over the same few words until we get them right. Writing poems and practicing songs seem as if they should be closely related practices — they have, after all, a common origin, and are still closely allied in most oral traditions. But for me, as a free verse poet, melody is a serious distraction. Now that I’ve finally gotten the incessant tunes out of my head, I’m able to hear the sounds and rhythms of language much more easily. Poems come to me now like they never did before.

I’m not trying to suggest, however, that what works for me might be good for anyone else. British poet-blogger Dick Jones says that playing in bands for a few decades improved his writing enormously. It sounds as if his initial motivation differed a bit from mine; I never had much ambition to “set the world alight with my deathless prose and incandescent verse” the way Dick says he did when he was young. Playing bass in public sounds like just the medicine he needed.

Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don’t notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm and just enjoyed the simple process of getting to grips with a musical instrument.

And, over time, this attention to the medium over the message had its kickback into writing. For the first time I started to write poems principally for the sake of the statement made and the craft of putting it together.

Dick and I may have been following parallel courses, though. Because it seems to me that we’ve each stumbled on a discipline that has taught us a little better how to listen.


Download the MP3

The caterpillar tents start appearing
just as the leaves burst their buds,
as if someone with a white marker
were doodling in every crotch of limbs.
My dad goes into the hospital to have
a large, non-malignant tumor
removed from his lower spine,
& I picture a white knot swelling
with caterpillars of pain.
A day after the surgery he’s taking
his first steps without it, this thing
that has made almost every position
of repose impossible for weeks,
forcing him to stand or to walk
slowly for hours each day.
Now it has been thoroughly cast out
through the surgeon’s art,
excised, exposed: bulb that burned
but gave off no light.
Sexless flower. Empty tent.
Be gone. Be gone. Be gone.

Here in the woods where my father returns
in a couple days to resume his walking —
this time to heal rather than assuage —
flashes of scarlet as a tanager
snatches gnats & caterpillars from
the not quite fully opened leaves,
singing a line of his hoarse song
between each mouthful of wings,
each mouthful of spines.

You’re lucky to have a lifetime in one place, Dave — do you feel that way, or does it get to you sometimes?
Beth (via email)

I have sat on my front stoop for two hours, glass of homebrew in hand, and I can tell you that I am not in a hurry to move any place else. It’s finally sunny after many days of rain, but the temperature is still only 65 degrees in the shade, and the oak leaves have yet to reach their full extent — hell, the black walnuts and black locusts have barely begun to open. I wish every spring took its time like this! I watch a bumblebee have intimate relations with the fresh pink blossoms on a bleeding-heart. A male ruby-throated hummingbird hurtles up and down, back and forth in his U-shaped courting flight, like the pendulum of an invisible clock. I watch a rose-breasted grosbeak singing as he flies, the red triangle on his breast catching the sun like a tribute to the 40th anniversary of May 13. (Damn, I was only two years old in 1968!)

A sharp-shinned hawk circles with that peculiarly rapid flapping they do, rising from the vicinity of my parents’ back porch to disappear into the slipstream above the ridge on wings of gold. A little later, a turkey vulture glides past. I watch innumerable flying insects backlit by the sun, all drifting in the same direction, west to east, in the almost imperceptible breeze. And all the while I listen to Roscoe Holcomb piped over the Internet, that high-lonesome Appalachian blues sound. At a certain point my eyes tear up: I can’t help thinking of those tens of thousands dead in Burma and in China. Poor fuckers. Whether you live on the coast or in the mountains, the land you love can turn on you at any time. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with my last poem — the way we are bound to a particular place on this earth, even if we are a party to its undoing, and find it devilishly hard to pick up stakes. I mean, those folks in Picher, Oklahoma: Jesus Christ.

I like the way alcohol makes me feel content and dissatisfied at the same time. Newly energized, I get off my ass and pull a bunch of weeds just as the sun is going down. As soon as it slips behind the western ridge and the shadows disappear, the catbird flies to the top of the tallest locust in the yard and begins to improvise. Beth, since you asked: it gets to me every day.

This entry is part 14 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools

Tape that doesn’t stick, reliable as the pronouncements of some close-lipped neighbor who never goes beyond the corner of the block. Tape that bends to follow the flank of a fish. Vacuuming dried begonia petals from a window ledge, I accidentally suck up a snail shell, one of three I’d had on display. It rattles briefly down the long hose & is gone. Shall I open the Shop-Vac’s fat belly & dig for it in the slag heap of dust & dead beetles? No, I’ll look for another. Snails in the woods are subject to continual Rapture — their empty shells are legion. Ditto for the ladybugs that litter every corner now that winter is past.

In an old house like this, nothing is square. The yellow blade of the contractor’s measuring tape was out of its case more often than it was in, checking the height of the ceiling every few feet. Either come in or stay outside, our exasperated parents used to tell us. On rainy days we’d spiral from the basement to the attic, leaving half-finished sketches to go try on costumes from a huge carton of old clothes.

Tape that doesn’t stick, like the tongue of snake. I had a friend in grade school who particularly enjoyed this game of dress-up. We’d switch between oversized suits & oversized gowns without a second thought. One time we even dressed as a newlywed couple & paraded downstairs to show my mom. I don’t recall her sharing our enthusiasm. As far as I was concerned, it was adulthood we were parodying, not gender roles per se. We laughed to think what kind of fop such clothes would actually fit. But now I can’t fit into my own jeans from five years ago, & as for my erstwhile friend, some neighbor said he came out of the closet as a homosexual & moved to Florida with his lover, not necessarily in that order. I know if I were gay, I’d leave this area and never look back.

Tape that doesn’t stick. Yesterday morning I wrote 25 lines, dense with slant rhymes & alliteration, & in the evening I retracted them & left just two words on the page, a fragment of an ode: