Birds of Passage

“Storytelling of Ravens” by Kenojuak Ashevak

north has lost its allure
to the great unsettling

mist lingers later in the day
storms smell like the tropics

the sun cedes ever more
to thieving ravens

and shimmering on a far shore
that magnetic field

traveling so light
even the songs stay behind

but home has grown
beyond elaboration

mountains don brighter plumage
berries ferment like sunsets

first a mellow burn
then the whole of the night sky

dark and speckled
as the inside of an egg

Star attraction

If I ran a movie review site, nothing would get more than one star. Movies would compete for fractions of a star.

Times are lean. We could run out of stars.

No one could afford to live under such a dark sky. They’d go mad with loneliness.

I saw another fireball the other night. Spend time under the stars and you see things: fish, a bull, a hunter, you name it. It’s so liberating to realize thanks to modern astronomy that the universe isn’t about us.

That said, there is a gas giant in my guest bedroom. My older brother can’t help his stature or intestinal difficulties. In his religion, everyone gets their own universe someday—a classic Ponzi scheme if you ask me. But what if it’s true?

I think the opposite is more likely the case: everything is drifting farther and farther apart, into an ever emptier void. You can already see it happening. People have that distance in their eyes.

the high inhuman
shriek of a dying rabbit
4th quarter moon

(via Twitter)

***

Finally got a good look at the pair of red-breasted nuthatches who’ve been hanging out in the spruce grove all year, according to my younger brother, and presumably nesting. Like the red squirrel i got a good look at yesterday, they were right near Dad’s grave. The spot is beginning to feel a bit magical, I have to say. Currently there’s a bit of fresh rain-water in the reflecting rock. I’m sitting on the bench listening to the stuttering calls of Linne’s cicadas, “a steady pulsating rattle sounding like a saltshaker” as the Songs of Insects website puts it. They outnumber dog-day cicadas now, of which I’m hearing just two—that buzz-saw whine. I’m also hearing what sound like falling acorns, a very hopeful sign.

***

In my poetry i want to write about nature without breathlessness. Don’t know whether i always succeed. Sharing new poetry on social media is an essential part of my probably Quixotic quest to normalize talking about wildflower sightings and wildlife encounters in the same way people post about the latest books or movies they’ve consumed.

I suppose in time I’ll end up creating a personal iconography of favourite species and other natural phenomena, licensed by the ubiquity of the smart phone and modern search engines—hardly any reference is too obscure anymore. For all that the internet has diminished attention spans, it does still expand access to layers of context that previously would’ve escaped all but the most knowledgeable of readers.

***

Successful ideologies are those that promise more than they can deliver. That way their adherents are never forced to answer for their beliefs. Evangelical conservatism may soon be dead as a political force because its adherents actually achieved one of their main goals, and everyone else is horrified.

***

Somewhere in the world right now a 90-pound weakling is sitting beside a hotel pool writing an epic novel and a 300-pound man in a tiny basement apartment is sweating over a haiku.

Wild things

So I’m standing here watering my garden, and a female hummingbird flies in and takes a shower in the spray, three feet away from my hand.

*

Many hours later, I flush two ruffed grouse. Together. For the first time in years—since West Nile Virus began decimating them about 15 years ago. Last winter I thought it likely that there were only two grouse on our entire, two-and-a-half mile long end of the mountain. Now there seem to be at least five. Perhaps they’re staging a comeback.

Two unusual wildlife sightings in one day! I’m a lucky man.

***

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of university students walking past a low-hanging oak limb on which an adult male red-tailed hawk was ripping apart a gray squirrel, and not one of them so much as slowing down to watch. And that was at least ten years before the rise of smart phones. It was around that time I realized that nothing I would recognise as poetry will ever reach a mass audience in this distracted age.

***

What if my next poetry collection included all my voices, not just a few of them? Perhaps it would be an unreadable mishmash. But if there’s a uniform focus or addressee, it might work. Hmm.

Maybe I should also be a little less concerned about what an audience might prefer until closer to the end of the project? Behave less like a craftsman or entertainer and more like an artist? I don’t know about that. It challenges my populist instincts.

But you’re talking about wild words. The wild is not and will never be popular. See above.

***

Suspense

You are waiting for the next thing to be popular so you can admit how much you’ve come to loathe the last thing. But with this economy, who knows whether there will even be a next thing? That last thing might be the last thing ever, in which case you will someday come to miss it with all the fervent conviction of nostalgia.

tea for two
the ant holding a crumb
above her head

Insurgent, portentative

I’m walking past ranks of even-aged red pines with a native broadleaf forest rising in the understory to a height of some thirty feet now: a visually striking natural insurgency against the industrial monoculture. Molting birds skulk through the dense foliage while a hermit thrush still sings just up the hill. A very small brown and white feather floats down.

*

If i didn’t know that these mushrooms were poisonous, would I still find them repulsive? Yeah, probably. The death angel looks delicious — which apparently it is. Then it dissolves your liver.

*

One of those days when even the rocks sweat and the biting insects form clouds dense enough to block the sun, and here I am circling a bog. My addiction to walking is beginning to seem nearly pathological, even to myself. But here’s the thing: I’m having a blast.

Oh what a lovely breeze!

Say, are those storm clouds?

hemlock sapling
bound in red surveyor’s tape
how hot it is

*

Why would I slog through a buggy bog, you ask? That’s where the prettiest mud is.

***

Portentative

sky face says meh
to the white noise

of our anti
bodies of work

squeezing whole lives
into a few hours before sleep

while six-legged leaves
chant half the night

sky face acquires
a round cloud mouth

the moonlight denies
ever knowing the moon

the lives we’re missing bloat like corpses
as species dwindle

sky face is just the void
with better branding

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.

In drought

what blooms at the dark
edge of the forest

a faded red that could also
be dropped leaves

the calling cards of drought
on a Saturday in mid-July

a monarch butterfly chrysalis
falls from the sky

with its golden ellipsis
too bitter a pill

for some young bird
still learning how to forage

blueberries ripen
cracks widen in the moss

the deer’s pelt twitches
under an endless assault of flies

as she methodically strips
a small spicebush

the sound of a humming-
bird’s small engine

skimming the five-spoked
wheels of soapwort

rises to a minor roar as he
rockets back and forth

over the beebalm patch
those alluring scarlet tongues

ready to risk desiccation
for a more urgent thirst

The red and the black

Picking red raspberries up on the Allegheny Front. Quite a switch from the more common black raspberries that Mom and I have been concentrating our berry-picking efforts on for the past week and a half, which signal ripeness by color change. With red raspberries, you have to kind of gently pinch them and see if they’re ready to let go. The dead ripe ones drop at the lightest touch. And they’re even sneakier than the black raspberries, bending canes down as they ripen so the best berries are often well hidden from above. They seem to be expressing an evolutionary preference for dispersal by small, ground-dwelling critters such as toads and turtles. Which makes sense, given their preference for wetter sites.

There’s a common yellowthroat up here with a distinctly different accent from the ones back home—ten miles away. Ours go witchedy-witchedy-witchedy, while this one goes liquidity-liquidity-liquidity. Truly a message for our time.

***

Many people don’t know this, but round about midsummer, some of the younger sassafras trees dance together at sunset.

What they do after that has not been recorded and is best not inquired into.

***

Already half-full, the sneaky cup. Already russulas up, with bites taken out of them. Already the first black gum leaves are beginning to turn.

Already half-full, the moon passes through a heart that turns into a tree, then disappears behind a giant grey mouse, re-emerging just below its tail. As Dave Barry used to say, I swear I’m not making this up. Except of course I am. They’re just clouds. The moon has nothing and everything to do with us.

The first true katydids! So early.

Evening porch

A chipmunk on top of the rock wall hears nuthatches scolding a predator 100 feet away and freezes. Only the powerful can afford to be monolingual.

*

A mature tree can have half a million leaves or more. Little dramas are unfolding on, under or within every leaf. Now multiply that by the number of trees in the forest…

I like thinking about this more than I like actually scrabbling about with a sheet and a magnifying glass, if I’m honest. I’ll leave that to the real naturalists. I’m more what you might call a dilettante naturalist.

*

The groundhog who lives under my house came up to sit on the stone recently vacated by the chipmunk — quite an upgrade in marmot size. And, to be clear, not an upgrade I specifically requested, though I’m sure I qualify for endless frequent flyer miles here on the porch. It seemed to be just taking in the cool night air and listening to trains until I leaned forward and disturbed it.

*

The ravens are certainly vocal this evening. They’ve divided forces for some reason and are keeping in touch.

*

A squirrel has evaded three, widely spaced sorties from a winged predator—probably an accipiter, because I’d see it if it were anything larger. They’re right inside the woods at canopy height.

*

Why do squirrels keep scolding so long after whatever they had been scolding has fucked off? It feels as if they just need to work the fear and stress out.

*

I’m glad such a regular singer of a wood thrush is defending a territory right next to my house. About 15 years ago, that stopped being routine. Now it’s infrequent enough to make this seem a lucky year. But the reality is they’re running out of luck. As are we.

I used to share the general view of wood thrush song—that it was melancholy. Tonight it sounds full of exuberance. It helps I’m sure that he has a rival over by the powerline—his real audience. And it sure doesn’t sound like they’re having a sad-off.

I think this one has figured out that if he comes right to the edge of the yard and sings loudly toward the house, he can get a bit of an echo. Top that, you powerline-loving bastard!

*

The small hawk, or whatever it was, just broke cover, sending the squirrels into a brief panic before they retreat to their dreys for the night.

Maybe THAT’S why they kept on scolding—they knew it hadn’t really left! And me presuming I understand the situation better than they do is sheer anthropocentric arrogance.

*

It’s funny, I thought by sitting on my porch I’d be less of a nuisance to wildlife than if I were sitting up in the woods, but I’m not sure that’s true now. First a groundhog and now a Carolina wren also have given strong signals that I am interrupting their evening rituals. And the wrens are not subtle about expressing displeasure, loudly, from several feet away.

*

One squirrel is still scolding in a half-hearted fashion as the fireflies start up. The whippoorwill calls from its usual spot just inside the woods. Random small explosions of fireworks start up in the farm valley to our east. Soon the other valley joins in.

Now it sounds like war. But the whippoorwill has worked up a good head of steam and will not be dissuaded. The squirrel still makes an occasional, querulous whine.

*

The 9:30ish twin-prop cargo plane goes over. I remember how Dad calculated its flight path years ago and decided it went from Johnstown to State College or something. He was nerdy like that. Curious about the world around him.

*

I hear the siren call of sleep. But also fireworks, I hear fireworks. And a motorcycle roaring through the gap. It’s summer in America. Nights and penises are short.

Unwarbling

A cerulean warbler and an American redstart in adjacent trees sound like a couple arguing.

“Are you really sure?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

And from time to time a black-and-white warbler interjects from the witch hazel: “Cool it cool it cool it!”

*

As a poet I will never not be irritated by the fact that the birds who actually warble aren’t warblers. I’m on the ridgetop now listening to an American robin and a scarlet tanager having a warble-off. (May 10)

About a week later, climbing the same ridge, I hear a warbling vireo. Now there’s a bird who lives up to his name!

***

The Richard Siken bot is one of a number of Twitter bots that make my life better. I’ll be pissed if they do away with all automated accounts, just because elites think ordinary people are stupid and should only ingest an anodyne information diet free of wrongthink.

***

We’ve removed the video you posted at 9:33 AM on September 28, 2019 because it included the following content:

Seagulls by Iridis

If you have permission to share everything in the video including the audio, like the soundtrack or music, you can appeal the removal and have your video re-posted. Remember that people should only post videos they have the right to share.

Edited by robot—an increasingly common experience for content creators. (Amazon warehouse employees can even be fired by a bot. I order books from eBay or Bookshop.org now.) This is a case where I used a recording of seagull that someone had released to the public domain, a musician appears to have incorporated the same audio into a musical track, which eventually caused my video to get flagged for copyright infringement. I appealed it, but there was nowhere to actually submit an explanation, so if any human does ever look at the situation, they’ll be clueless.

It’s a useful reminder to never put all of one’s eggs in one basket. A friend who relied solely on Facebook and never had a blog lost thousands of posts and photo galleries when they decided to terminate his account and ignored his appeal until the deadline for appeal had expired, then erroneously told him he’d missed the deadline and there was nothing further he could do.

***

Just as the Dept of Agriculture pays farmers to not grow crops on land they don’t want cultivated, the Disinformation Governance Board should pay content creators they don’t like to not create content.

Just to be clear, I would absolutely jump on that gravy train. Poets are quite used to getting recognition for writing that nobody actually reads. Getting paid for it yet would be awesome!

***

Just watched an Acadian flycatcher perform a little dance—hopping sideways down a branch while the female looked on from the branch above (and me from ten feet away).

And now a winter wren is singing over a wood thrush. Think jazz saxophone meets Gregorian chant. (May 16)

*

Pausing Monk to listen to a brown thrasher. The way the thrasher’s jazzy inventiveness slowly becomes subsumed in the larger soundscape (which he partially mimics) as he moves farther away. (May 16)

*

Hearing a sound from the valley I can’t identify and realizing how rare it is that I hear any sound I can’t immediately identify. That’s what it means to be a local, I guess.
Hearing new and exotic soundscapes was always one of the main attractions of travel for me. Wonder if I’ll ever get to do any more of it. (May 17)
*
When I got back from my walk, the Carolina wren who nests behind the fuse box was sitting next to a half-grown cottontail rabbit. WHAT ARE THEY PLOTTING? (May 17)
***
From the calypso superstar known as the Mighty Sparrow, here’s the most cheerful-sounding song about the ravages of neocolonialist capitalism I’ve ever heard:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6k9U6vQ8Mk

Weather permitting

I can’t deny the central importance of my phone’s weather app to my daily walking practice. Being able to squeeze in an hour’s fast walk between thunderstorms, yesterday evening on a day otherwise too buggy and humid for a pleasant walk, is something I wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the old days, before up-to-the-minute weather radar data in one’s pocket.

Needless to say, global weirding also makes the weather harder to predict just by watching the sky and knowing what’s expected in each season. “Red at night” could mean anything these days. If it was sweltering yesterday, it’s likely sweater weather today.

***

highway work—
bandanna gone white
from his salt

***

It’s odd, looking back, that I never had much interest in general literary culture aside from poetry. I’ve tried to read journals like the Georgia Review or the Kenyon Review and found them interesting enough, but not so much that I wanted to let high-brow discourse and concerns take over my whole Weltanschauung. I think it’s intellectually limiting. Watching comedy on YouTube, listening to underground metal on Bandcamp, or reading nonfiction strike me as a better use of my non-poetry-related free time.

I should add that I’m not one of those jerks who submits to journals I rarely read. But I do have to wonder how many of these publications would even exist without tenure and review requirements that academic writers publish regularly in prestigious places. As the tenure system goes away, how many of these journals will survive? Those few that do will probably be quite a bit less arid and more edgy, designed solely for an audience of urbane intellectuals.

Simply having Poetry Daily, which reprints poems from journals and other publications, as my laptop’s homepage for the last 18 years, plus following a bunch of poetry bloggers, is enough to a) keep me apprised of interesting new collections and translations I might want to pick up, and b) prevent me from feeling completely out of the loop. Social media helps fill in the gaps with more ephemeral poetry-world news.

Reading poets’ personal blogs, to the extent they still exist, offers in some ways an opposite experience to reading a journal: largely un-copy-edited, raw, unfiltered, full of quirk and charm and way more ideological diversity than you’d find in any one organ with a unifying editorial vision. I follow poets from nearly every conceivable background and persuasion, socialists, centrists, libertarians, scientists, school teachers, beat poets, experimental poets, etc. If they write or simply appreciate good poetry, I’ll add them to my feed reader.

It’s a shame that feed readers never really caught on. It’s like the bizarre reluctance of online literary magazines to serialize content using blogs, a technology designed specifically for serializing content. But all too often, as the founders of Substack realized, it’s not enough to have tech solutions out there if they require too much sustained attention to technical details that most people, even editors unfortunately, don’t want to wrestle with.

The resistance of our literary elite to anything requiring technical know-how does get tiresome, though. I suppose that’s why I find the poetry film crowd so congenial—they’re not afraid to wade in and play around with some of the amazing tools and toys currently at our disposal. (For how much longer, who knows.)

***

One of the unexpected adjustments I’ve made as I’ve gotten older is I’m OK with not knowing the answer to, or even having an opinion on, every goddamn thing. It’s very liberating. I recommend it.

rat mummy—
a rictus of agony
in old leather

***

Songbirds harrying a cuckoo. I didn’t realize they did that, but it makes sense. They may not notice the difference in their eggs, but they would sure as hell notice someone trying to sneak into their nest.

And now I have a Clarence Ashley earworm—a quality problem!

***

The topic of personal identity tires me after a while, with the rather literal spin that most people put on it in a desperate effort to assert some thereness for this nebulous mental placeholder, the self. I want to know more about shadow identities, for example: one-time or persistent mistaken identities ascribed to one by others. Let’s also consider any and all fantasy identities one might assume, whether in imagination alone or in role-playing games. Persistent dream identities, if any. Characters in favorite novels, comic books, movies etc. with whom one deeply identifies. And of course the way they all intersect. Let us not through dissection diminish what is in a sense larger than life.

***

Deep in the woods, a small sun-starved blueberry bush is having its best year ever: it produced a flower for the first time—a perfect yellow bell!—and a forest bumblebee with pollen on her feet found its nectar. Now the green berry swells.

What bird will find it when it assumes the color of the sky? How far might its seeds travel? That’s how suddenly the future can change on you.

forest floor
striped with shadows
swallowtail