It’s late afternoon on a warm day
in the cold month of my birth.
I step outside & listen
to the familiar drumming of a pileated woodpecker
on some dead tree, husk hollowed out, rigid frame
resonant as it never was when sap still flowed.
There’s a throaty snowmelt gurgle
from the ditch beside the cattails.
The field is nearly bare, while the woods
still harbors a soggy white carpet.
Paint flakes from my once-white house
like molting fur, & the second-story window’s
reflection of tree & sky is the only pure thing —
I’d pray if I thought it made a difference.
But the damned snow
is going native as fast as it can.
The phrase in italics was taken from Todd’s last poem. The title of this series, newly adopted, refers to the physiographic province in which Todd and I live, I near the top of one of the ridges (Brush Mountain) and he in the adjacent valley to the west (Logan Valley), about seven miles away.
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.
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (reproduced under a CC Attribution-Share Alike “copyleft” licence)
I hope your mother’s heart has settled
& ceased its flutter. I’d like to add
some wish about hearts in general
in this time of rage & sadness,
but I’m not sure poets should perpetuate
such outdated metaphysics about
a thing that turns out to be little more
than an organ, a nest of fat roots
that can be transplanted like a tree
from one body to another, even
across species lines.
I am still agog at this, recalling
my Great Aunt Thera’s pride & wonder
as a former farm girl that she owed
her last years of life to a sacrificial pig.
If there’s a soul, then, I wonder
where it might sit?
I picture a yellow canary flitting
anxiously from perch to perch as
its cage travels deeper into the mine.
I picture the trees our primate bodies
evolved to navigate, their ladders,
their heartwood neither alive
nor clearly dead. I remember
the blossoming branches of a wild
sweet cherry tree one spring,
after an ice storm had toppled it
& a chainsaw had severed the trunk
from the tangle of roots and soil.
Even decapitated, it bloomed with abandon,
it bloomed as if there were no tomorrow:
clouds of white against the brown woods.
The wasps & bees didn’t seem
to know the difference, & surely
their grubs grew just as fat
on that deathless honey.
I have no answers, & am afraid
for those who do. The Aztecs
suffered no shortage of poets, all
wringing their hands at the sweet
ephemerality of life. Their stock
metaphor for a heart was a blossom,
& the chest cavity of a human being
was the sacred ground over which
they fought their wars.
What have we learned?
The Holy Land itself has been vivisected
into slivers that can’t survive in isolation.
Broken sewers on one side of the wall
mean poisoned wells on the other,
& blood spilled in one place
travels who knows how far
through the imperilled veins
of a single subterranean heart.
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.
The deer hunter is an orange dot
among the trees on the hillside
from where his teenage son sits
in their bright red pickup, running
the engine to thaw out his toes.
There’s a spot in the otherwise
uniformly white sky that’s too bright
to look at. A red-bellied woodpecker
taps, listens, taps — a surgeon
tending to whatever succulent
parasites infect a tree. The deer
have left the melted semicircles
where they slept & their soft
brown eyes & beautiful muzzles
are now bent on finding their daily
five pounds of twigs & tree seedlings,
converting the forest of the future
into flesh & excrement. Day Six
of rifle season & they’ve turned
wild again, like any hunted thing.
In the field, the shadows of dried brome
are so faint, you’d never see them
if they weren’t trembling
in every curled extremity.
The latest edition of the Festival of the Trees is up at A Neotropical Savanna, after a delay occasioned by the loss of internet service (something I can relate to). Go look.
Also, I encouraged Dana Guthrie Martin to post her statement of purpose as a poet, which she drew up as part of the MFA submissions process. It’s one of the best personal manifestos I’ve ever read, and now it has me thinking maybe I should attempt something similar. If you were to write a statement of purpose — as a writer, as a blogger, as a human being — what would it say? How would you justify what you do, or don’t do?
Villagers attending church, by Walter Sanders
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.
November, & all the creatures of habit
come crowding in. Trees have been reduced
to a series of repetitive gestures;
the forest is in ruins.
Down by the creek on cold mornings,
one can find new sprouts
pushing aside the leaves:
brown curled tongues, crystals of mud.
A tree cricket, its vital parts
yet to be pierced by needles of ice,
comes back to life on a warm afternoon
& searches for a green background
to disappear into. It can’t quite fit
between the white hairs on the trunk
of a striped maple.
One morning I set off without eating,
forgetting how quickly the body can burn
through its fuel this time of year.
Soon, I’m so light-headed I’m seeing spots.
I want to lie down like a rock in the creek
& wait for the current to slow
& hold me in place. Hibernation
never seemed more attractive.
Instead, I turn back & find the spot
in a catalpa tree where a yellow-billed cuckoo
came to a mysterious end, draped
over a twig like a forgotten stole.
How long has it been there,
hidden by the tree’s commodious parasols,
eponymous bill shut tight as any bud?
Behind it on the hillside, the witch hazel
blossoms have shriveled, the leaves are down.
Autumn is almost out of surprises.
When the snow comes,
we will greet it as a liberator.
For a little while at least it will seem
like a fresh start.
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.
Again this morning, a northern harrier
haunts our forty-acre field,
over the spent goldenrod & brome,
the white flag on her rump flashing
as she banks & hovers, her wings
in a fluttery V:
mixed signals for those who would see her
as nothing more than namesake
for a flying weapon.
into the grass
& reemerges with a squirming meal.
Old fields like ours
are rarer than they used to be, & perhaps
she would prefer marshland,
but most of the marshes were drained
a hundred years ago, & so
for four days we have watched her
appear & disappear like
a magician’s handkerchief
along the top edge of the field.
Left alone, the land
in ways that contradict all expectation.
The cool wet forest felled
for charcoal in 1813
would’ve held — in root-nets,
in yard-deep humus & baroque
superstructures of wood —
as much water as
a small lake.
But with the recent arrival
of the woolly adelgid, we know
the old-growth hemlock will never
come back. Best
to make our peace
with light & drought,
with curled flourishes of grass
& a migrating harrier fishing for voles
under the bluest skies.
The lake is half drained
and now looks like the mud
puddle of some enormous child.
Where water slid away fast, cracks
appear, as does the detritus
of our living. Geese find
the few places fish still swim,
and killdeer have set up home
near the cinderblocks and tires
that once served as nests
of another kind. Tree stumps
line the lakebed, solid despite
their years underwater. I imagine
this grove before any saw cleared it,
before the stream at the far side
was dammed, before this depression
in the earth accepted the weight
we filled it with. A blue jay
in an ash tree sneers at our efforts,
and I smell the harsh smell
of wet earth drying.