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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was taking the broom for a slow shuffle
around the dining room when I heard
the fluting of wild swans & rushed out,
scanning the sky till I spotted the long wedge
high above the hollow, heading north.
They were as dark against the sky
as we must be to them against the ground,
pausing in our Sunday labors, mouths open
as the swans pass over the train tracks
& the river, over the interstate & the quarry’s
enormous silent megaphone,
over a cardinal singing in a barberry hedge,
over junker cars & houses sheathed
in fading asphalt shingles,
over old carpets left out in the yard
to kill the grass where a vegetable garden will go,
over the burrows of amorous woodchucks
and the leaf nests of squirrels,
over sheets & long johns flapping on the line.
The swans seemed tireless. Their one refrain
might as well have been “Over the Hills
& Far Away,” as in the Burl Ives song
about the piper’s son. They’d keep it up
long past the last tree, I knew — until
the land cleared of almost all clutter,
there where the darkness disappears for months.
I went back to my sweeping,
assembled the dust from every corner,
then opened the door & ushered
that small blue hill into the wind.
I also shot a mediocre video of a flock of tundra swans this morning. You can watch it here.