Right then

The iodized salt psychic has a framed certificate from the board of health mounted behind his rickety office desk. Why, I wonder, is my imagination cluttered with such useless things? Why do I remember that dead leaf on the driveway, turning over like the page of a well-thumbed volume perused by the wind? What does it mean – if anything – that a black cat not merely crosses my path day and night, but is raising three kittens in the barn, all as feral as she? Are all of them black? Yes, as black as the jack of diamonds – aside from the parts that are white, of course. Have you been missing any songbirds? How many should we have? How many do you hear? All of them, I think. But sometimes I sleep with my windows shut.

This morning it was chilly but beautiful. I woke late and sat out on the porch watching, well, everything there was to watch. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because my attention kept wandering back to an erotic dream I’d had. You know. It had me whispering sweet nothings in the morning’s ear: “All my life has been nothing but a preparation for this moment.” Which one? The sun works its way down the side of my house, but I keep my eyes on the woods. Dew drips from the eaves. Yesterday I went to an auction of old farm tools and was thrilled and mesmerized by the auctioneer’s cadence, but I’m not thinking about that right now. I’ve gone 180 degrees, in fact: I’m busy jotting down some haiku in my little reporter’s notebook, which all day long at the auction never left my pocket.

Cool morning.
Crystal-clear air carries
a whiff of sewage.

Indigo bunting,
yellow warbler trade songs –
same syllable count.

Chilly morning.
A chipmunk stops to scold
in a patch of sunlight.

One drums, the other yammers:
the pileateds agree
to disagree.

When the sun clears the top
of the tall maple
I’ll go get breakfast.

And I do. Inside, it’s just another morning. Are there really still these same four walls? How strange! But I have work to do. I need to stop thinking about what I’ve been thinking about and think about something else, I think, and at the very moment I’m thinking this, something goes bump in the crawl space under the floor. Bump, it goes. Gee, thanks, Doc! I’m glad you agree.

Spring snow: sixteen snapshots

Spring snow:
the night before, I woke
to the sound of swans

Spring snow:
the spicebush outside my window
captures more & more of the sky

Spring snow:
one mourning dove adds
an extra half-note

Spring snow:
the soft ground sinks
under my boots

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Spring snow:
last year’s stalks of Oswego tea
don fresh caps

Spring snow:
whitewashed walls of a springhouse
look anything but white

Spring snow
clinging to every twig
trunks glow green with lichen

Spring snow:
the black cat crouches
beside a vole’s burrow

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Spring snow
on budding maples:
faint blush of pink

Spring snow
covers up the letters
on a “No Trespassing” sign

Spring snow:
the woods won’t be this dark again
until early summer

Spring snow:
soft thumps as it drops off the trees,
water loud in the creek

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UPDATE: Thanks to Ivy Alvarez for suggesting a change in the first haiku (“I woke” instead of “I had awoken”).

Hi, cue

Sharon of Watermark is soliciting New Year’s haiku for one of her multi-partner poem dances. I stopped by to drop a link to the preceding entry in the comment box, but then, right on cue, felt the urge to drop something more appropriately syllabled. This be it.

To what shall I liken
this New Year’s, warm and brown?
It happens, that’s all.

Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.


The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.


Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.


Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.


Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.


Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.


On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.