A book of poemsGregg Glory [Gregg G. Brown] amazon.com/author/gregglory gregglory.com
Once all wilderness was innocence. Later, all wilderness was sin. What does it say about wilderness, that it could be both sin and innocence—a space of condemnation and reprieve—at once? What does it say about us, limber interpreters of vastness? Every day someone takes a snapshot of themselves with the Statue of Liberty on his shoulder, or the moon upheld in her palm, the violent grandeur of the universe turned by metaphor and pixel-flash into a beachball.
Now we find our wildness in suburban glimpses: long weekends away to a campsite, the unwonted sting of a bee. Yet we were made by wildness; we were wolves before we mellowed to dogs. When observation and observance sharpen beyond the roar of words we soothe ourselves with, the tickertape of conscience and prayer unspooled to silence, we can see the action of life plain. The constant taking, the inevitable greed, camouflage, and waste inherent in all things.
The sun knows nothing but to burn. The salmon little else than to breed and feast. Our arteries are red with burning, veins blue with hunger. A paranoid, irascible eye sees many raw things civilization has regretfully gilded; an eager ear—with its vestigial muscle for turning still intact—may yet attune itself to the strangeness of what is. Listen.
Parables are everywhere is our daily doings if we listen, the ear of consciousness arranging random notes and facts into pattern, the flare of consciousness illuminating new mosaics in the old catacombs. Life itself, in all its accident and happenstance, is transformational because our consciousness is partial.
We can’t see all sides of an object at once like a cubist artist. We cannot even experience ourselves consistently across the daily divide of sleep; at best we are strips of stuttering film. We bridge these gaps with memory and imagination. And reality is the perpetual testing grounds of that self-invention—and poetry, at its finest, with its honest looks at what is—is the checklist for that reality. Words are the net we use to draw reality into us. So use that net, anxious to add meaning to your ultimately unknowable life—the omnipresent wilderness.
April 1, 2018
Shy in their herding dwell the fallow deer ...spirits of wild sense... Printless as evelight, instant as dew. John Drinkwater
After Thin Winter
My tongue fell like a gravestone, flat Into silence, when I heard the darting lark, An amplitude of bees at the azaleas in spring And the mad abandon of frogs in their croakeries As the kiln sun outlined fingerling icicles, and snows Receded. What was killed at Christmas was made ready, Made mud and substance for new life at Easter, Elegant as grass dancing from the fundament. What songs I had cribbed in my dab, crabbed hand All winter long in my grey oyster’s cloister Blandly abandoned their pearls in my mouth; What I had deemed gospel is proved uncouth. Only silence and stillness can I bring to what’s given, The badge of eager ears my only sign of office, A wideness of eyes my warrant for living, A narrow nose my keel, and sighs for my sails.
The sun hooks the eye— A fishingline of light Teases daubs, gobs Of unready tears From the prone fisherman. The arc of history, the arc Of his lazy cast, are Identical to God’s, one More blind parabola among Many hits and misses. Still, he watches his bobber, Sun of its own solar system, A clownish bellybutton Pinned in its gravity well, Helpless as a marble. Something beneath bites; His wary, wired eye sees No more than Schrodinger Trapped outside the bottle He fishes to investigate. The bobber is an eye- Ball in a troubled socket Nippling the rubber sheet, Inflicting wrinkles, crowsfeet, And no nest to home in on.
Baby salmon are born simple fillips of thin light, Thumb-smears of ectoplasm, long eggs Unfurling into elegant flags of tails That plump through long late spring luxuriously As any mat of pasta filigreed with fins. The racer spritz of underbelly speckles Makes her indivisible with the river, devotional, A sweptback speedboat divoting the current Lambing the surface with sunny braids of wooly foam, Then, dive after dive, memorizing each shadow grotto, By lounge and lunge investing the homeplace with myth…. Sleepy or ecstatic she swims, until the day comes When salt first touches the innocent lip Alerting galvanic gizmos in the svelte groin And the salmon, in mass chorus, beg the river To lead them away, like following the grain of an etching. Away from childish eddies, from mild tideless nights, Away from reeds in their tactile millions, from oniony beds Of emptied fish eggs; away, away and down To the silver-slippered whaleroad of the sea! Down to the breakers and badlands, borderless lagoons, Completing, with raw luck, a Pacific circuit As round as the world Magellan imagined, Where each nimble slit face will bleaken into a claw, Each corvette exterior ripen to bitter red And only the sly survive.
Bales of daybreak scatter broken hay— Shreds of light the early parkground Feeds the eager eye, waking ringing birds. Golden gears of day get going, annoying Drunkards and latecomers, laggards Too timid to escape their asylum of dreams. The foot crunches cinders on the cold park path As woods enclose the walker in dew-dim green, Ears and eyes awake for what brambles disclose: A syrupy dewlap repeating to its mate, The bitter gabble of a squirrel on high, How the referenceless blue of sky intrudes. At a stop where rubber joggers stretch He sits, a chalky bubble doming at his feet A moment’s irritated digging reveals To be the stark arched catacombs of a skull.
The woodpecker hammers in deafness, An arpeggio of ellipsis dots Turning the trunk into a thunderous drum Loud as a cloudburst, a wail of electric Lightning in the downpour of his beak, Itself a splinter of the woodpecker’s brain His single nail of intention drilling A rabble of insects from the desert wood, Fleets of them fleeing Egypt, half-grown wings folded Like packs on the refugees’ backs Seeking Sinai beyond the impassable banks— A place of sacred song, bonfires and worship, Their stump wings become angel feathers Themselves grown golden in face and limb Raising all their hallelujah voices in song together A circle of safety and praise “Hallelujah!” And only the tamed accompanying tumble of drums To remind them of the woodpecker.
Two Pike Beneath the Rail Bridge
for Mat Spano
A snake of shadow doubles in the water— A grounded pike in his cold redoubt, his Troubled blur of darkness underneath him Rolls over motes of stones like a cut kite-tail, In a water-flight of greedy feeding, snap and Strike after strike into terrorized small fry That blaze his evilly thin needle teeth with blood, Curling broody clouds into lake-light and weeds And obscuring the dumbshow action of a life. II The weight of the pike, black as a wrenched rail spur, Meditates in his mysterious underworld, gleeless And deeply green as a Christmas bough— I am life! I am knife! he seems to say, scissoring His blunt course beneath the taut causeway, A troll below the ebony river’s surface, shadow Inside shadow, his deathly inches glistening ink As he writes the page of life black as himself Or his shadow-self, the self that guides the knife.
Moment of Silence
The little brown hen, beheaded Ran about the dusty clucking yard like an abortion Her spur of blood a race flag Stippling the yard with dark dots, beautymarks For a full minute. The other hens stopped clucking And left their feed unattended to watch, To feel the dark sprinkler pass by batting them— Their eyes vaguely gathered, vaguely lit. All scratching hushed, and the sun stopped. For a full minute I think it was, yes.
The Duck, Shotgunned
The duck, shotgunned Caught the full volley of pellets, Steel circles like pilled thimbles Spreading inner fire with a hundred matchsticks Struck in the smoking under-feathers, The trim wings wide, as in delight mid-flight But here is suffering and ripping, A million zippers stripping skin, All your fingernails blown off in a single twinge And nerve and blood left to baste in air, Bathe in pain Forever.
Death of a Housefly
This is the basis. A faceted particle Bearing its pair of window-wings, a fractal Reflecting Nature’s majesty in grim miniature. A dot of the universe made blood and hair, The infinitesimal start of the Big Bang’s buzz. The nodule, the nada. This dead housefly Practiced spastic pratfalls through the rooms— A black note following what conductor’s wand? Among damaged fruit and unguarded ears It made its itchy way. Stumbling, staccato, on tiptoe. I watch the billion connections blossom From his rainbow bowl-of-gumballs eyes To my duller ones, practiced and lidded. Do you see, the fly whispers, how alike we are? Were you a gnat, I would swat you, fly says. As you are, I sip blood from your hairy walls. The dead housefly flitters from the counter To the floor in summer’s mangy breeze. Its universe is over, its finale played and applauded. I negotiate broom and dustpan in procession, Knock the little bugger into the too-full dustbin And ring shut the metal lid like a cymbal.
A flying saucer on a stick swings back and forth Over the dirty beach, the dribble of grime That marks the tide’s high assault, the clamor Of a slug’s cold unwanted kiss. The flying saucer swings, and swigs of sound Filter a staticky hash through my cupped earholes, The sound post-apocalyptic, waiting for the bright bing The inimitable click that signals a tossed coin, The fine wire of a hairpin, the lost Mayan gold Of a forgotten money clip.
A Wheel of Hooks
Turns in the eagle’s flying eye, zeroes down To peg a live shadow in the grass, Haul it sputtering to nest. Two chains of hooks its feet Dangle shaggy dragnets Over Sumptuous innocuous indolent meadows. A hundred hooks gather into feathers, Climb the frigidaire air barb by barb, Clawing against gravity to flight. A hook, too, is the prowlike Bastion of beak Battering ribs with its stick, incising Designs into totem, Curve after curve In the bloodied broken side of its prey.
Slender in the Grass
Snakes are boneless trombones sliding slender in the grass. Their alphabets are all hisses, “Asss to Zsss.” Their eyes, like birds’, are liquid wax droplets of black, Pools of dark rumor and wells of ancient observation. They ride the damp ground like a whip writhing to stiffness, Thwacking desperate cracks in the dirt to attract a skinny mate. A snake’s razor mouth widens to a gulp when any beetle lands near, Its split rainbow back a Swiss Army knife of displayed wings. When rains come, churning and flooding the ripped field, they swim, Their lengths alert S’s suddenly alive as kitetails in the teeming wind. They know no road but hunger, and sleep their meals down for days, weeks, Giving back to the damp uncaring ground a mouse’s intricate skull, A spittle of skeleton, forever ivory and wideeyed.
Where to begin? A confusion of thorns Besets the setting sun with a hash of prison bars; Night’s limber elements are rising from the earth Reanimating darkness, giving limbs to missing light, Raising a black wave over our heads Cricked down for evening prayers, then a meal. But for now, all is still confusion— The old barn taut with disintegration, its hard Lean away from light; the tempest of songbirds Arriving noisily to nests in the sun’s abatement; The raccoon’s paw awake to darkness and theft; Thrills of a million moths detaching themselves From the sloped sides of trees, their daily guards. The eagle, the snake, the hawk, the dog retire. In their place, night’s minion, the hidden thrust, The secret grasp—oh, death by any other name, Death by a thousand stratagems—all recorded In the reflective eye of the cat at the window.
Cadaver in Vastness
Time the hammer and time the anvil Claws raw gobbets from the cadaver. A quiet of observation invades the hills, Wraps the sliver viewer in vapor. The child’s dog had run away down the road No farther than here; Here were no green ingots of gravehills, Just one dog rotted to a husk, A blackened comma stuck out beyond His tongue’s final saying. The cliffs, quilt-patched like coral, Still melt in immeasurable mists; Trees swing their long beards over the brook, Fish alive among their barky toes. But here at the dark roadside, a cavern Axes dead halves of a ribcage Into darker futures, a vastness Realer than stars.
The lizard in the ditch, his brain a chip Turns his chipped eyes to the sun The lichened rock he spraddles is pocked With stars of greenish lesions A harshness of stars is in his twenty Fingerends roughed for gripping He is sure of nothing, not even gravity As he glares at the universe from his rock— Along his spine a constellation gathers Like a trail of bulletholes in God…. The lizard in the ditch, impatient for flies Slowly splits his jaw, spits his split tongue As if to lap up the sun, its tunnel of cauldron One changeling flame at a time Until night comes, however ugly, and only his Spine of stars is shining
She’s surprised, her eyes foolish, owlishly large, Twin fishbowls slopped with infinity, her mouth Dropped doll-like open in a pinkish, pale gash A slash touch of drool spooling a corner. What is it that she’s watching? A second moon Shouldering out from behind the first We know so well, like our own splotched hand Familiar and veined and always available? No, not that. It’s something closer to home Like a threat, a chainsaw hiccupping off a nail, Its blade loud and wild, a deadly blurr, A blaze of steel thorns throbbing sparks! She watches so carefully, so pitilessly, a poised Tan animal about to pounce perhaps, Watchful of her victim’s teeth, array of claws, Hidden stings, woodpecker’s beak like a sewing machine, The power of muscles thumping a bone skull like a club. Yet she herself is still, fearless— Alone, empyrean, detached, fatalistic, A girl standing at the edge of her own green yard, Ambivalent, balanced.
Flesh was never less alive Than in their claw-hammer mouths, Gobbets and blobs dripping from beaks Wry as fishhooks. The spurring rabbit the truck wheel had winged Left nailed to the asphalt Now a grim etching by Durer, tendons aghast, Gashed open like a surgeon’s how-to To the slow thoughtful desecration of the doctors Hunched around their diagnosis.
The icy field is stiff with thistles, Pencils jammed in a holder, grey bristles on a chin. Thousands of bareheaded golf balls rolled to a stop, Each beheaded head bedizened with pins. How long did it take for these roots to creep? These spiky knobs to rise like fists? Each hidden root connects to another root, root to root, A starchart under the earth’s dirt. I stand here alone as winter makes us alone: Banging my hands for warmth, stamping my feet. If I had a mirror big enough I could show this overrun world its face.
River Waving and Waving
A stillness is in it. Leaden. Even though it is waving, waving continually It’s always with the same, tame, martinied Glassy indifference. Green-eyed, squatting, squalid As a toad, as lipless gelid. A fresh-water jellyfish or squid laid on a board Would look as lively, as livid, lurid. All day loping the gaping bank, its wound of water— Summertime anglers, day-campers Never too far from stoves and faucets, The womb of home. I put my hand into river coldness. I drop a baited hook into its goop. I stoop for smooth dull stones to throw at it. Or reach into the silver house with a threaded wish To catch flesh I de-shingle and eat— The red welt of fish-wealth held in the fire’s fingers As evening gains in the trees And darkness erases faces. Szzz—Too hot to touch! This Frying sliver of river. But stabbed with a stick, I bring it up Greedily between my teeth.
Bats in a Cavern
Here’s no light but an echo of light Light like a black ear flapping Small-boned bodies flapping in a known womb-cave The whole place the scraped inside of an eye, waiting And the sprawled dawn-cry comes, a thousand cries Skreaking and streaking like train cars— Twice a thousand ears eating dawn like an egg! A black egg, viscid and filling All is known, all is revealed, x-rayed by those cries The bugs the guano the catacomb litter Their little fur chests line up like soldiers Glued to the gleaming ceiling of the cavern Clawing the raw stone One thousand faces split and dripping
Less than a thimbleful will make you lose the will to live. Gnats attack at the interstices Where sweat lives under an eyelid, a slick Lick of paint no one could mistake for tears. A peppering of infinitesimal bodies Intent on your discomfort, they fly into hinges Of elbows and knees Giving their gamey smell when crushed Of rotted olives. Too small to wipe off They remain, a grit of pulverized guts Waiting for the laundromat’s absolution, The shower’s cloudy powerwash.
The sparrow, wrestle-breasted arrow of song, Indignant arc lamp of day, sky’s-spy, deliverer of God’s notes To mute mortal ears, lug jug-handles on the wine pot— How like a spook you move in the thin limitless air. How beyond deftness your swiftness. Sheer circles of light! And in an endless ring you are singing—phrases, prophecies, The moulting basketloads of insects yet uneaten! And the sun comes through your mouth, too; the sun, And all the crying stars of yestereve, tearpricks in the blueness. Constellations align to your wingtips, grasses part at your Passing, nature and songster at one in the dewsweep. No more clotted gobblings of domestic turkeys, blind clucks Earthbound and beaten to repetitious hawkings of mere sound, Bruised wattles hanging diseased over all song, any singing. Here is a choir of velvets and visionings, long lusterful sighs That folds the sky in your pocket, all in one fluffed breast. It seems to have no nest, but when the nest is found, Tucked like an ear under a crest of rosebush, or suddenly There beneath a worsted whorl of fieldgrass, with old bandages Of eggs, cast off crepe from the birthday party, sharp discardings That gave rise to this, to you, gripping your perch, The striped bullet head bent back in laughter!
Stars turn blue in the untended bucket While belly sleeps and wing slopes. The day was yours, tin beak, The night I keep, says eyelid asleep. The nest rides quiet like a lip of wave, The evergreen ever-vigilant of its dark shade. There’s nothing to see between the sheaves Of branches, except the feathery skin Of the wind At last at rest.
A war-wind licks the tattered rocks Frosted with lichen stubble, spare faces Visible above green beards. The remains of a farm, of a home Washed, tumbled to a lumbar spine of fallen wall Spoiled by a seafoam stain. All the lives here are bone again, are green Mouldy birthmarks, are mottled handprints flimsy As a kindergartener’s Thanksgiving turkey. Shamrock sigils of vigils past and failed— Hail fellowships birthing only this mint rot, this Nothing of wind warring wind And lichens’ fading greying faces.
Prickers stick to rough jean cuffs covering scuffed work boots. Unshaven stubble shows the stiff imprint of age, Gaunt gristle of days lived and forgotten, an old sailor’s youth Sailed grey among cows and seas of grass. I pull at them at the stone churchyard doorstep, slap Stubborn stubble on worn and faded cuffs. My long heedless stride got me here, gathered green days To this scruff of stars washing round my ankles. Prickers gather thick as ticket stubs in a bottomless pocket, The washed-out dates distorted and mangled. All my life I’ve come alone through these fields to this frigid steeple Like a compass needle that always comes round to North. And these with me, least eminences of the neglected field, These rustling pricker-weed seeds with small arms lifted astonished— Ferrying always with me on my open journey, sticking it out, Until I cast them In miserable heaps to the doorstep.
He stood alone, wild in the merry-go-round junkyard. Jagged stacks of tires creaked a rubbery babble, Oily water caught rank in the empty rims. Where had they driven, these rearing carnival-wheels? What seen, these charcoal eye-holes outlined in bruise? Miles they’ve revved and spun, millions of miles, Miles going round and wearing out, like hearts. And now: a bird pulls out a bit of wire, The hasty scamper of a rat keeps dry in mysterious rain. A weed reaches its thread through some wheel-hole, Waiting for fate’s snip-snip in the afternoon sun.... Wheels ridden to strips against earth’s wheel, Paired gears kissing and grinding in lifelong marriage, The little gear worn through like a wound, dirty, A wound too old now for even a bandage, A wound no longer bleeding, really— A wound where the sky leaks in, And a swindling Wind whistles To hatch a crow, a black rainbow Bent in emptiness over emptiness But flying Ted Hughes
You, Over There
Something happened to you, over there. A snowy owl invests your shoulders With hunches, black minnows drown Your eyes, between the transfixed cross Attached at your brows—the stiff track Of a crow’s kinked foot in night snows.
Not to die. Not to die. The small worm-eye of the raven is so black It is blue. Blue-black, flattening its wings Against a nude sheet of snow, legs Of tree roots still dark, unconquered by the frost. The raven looks about, a small shirr of dust Drifting from his black forehead, his eye Of outerspace—without star, without moon. He hunches in his overcoat under a juniper bush. To be a raven is to never die, he thinks. How many coffins I have stood atop! His wings Spread like an evil phoenix, a mourner’s umbrella. To him, a tomb’s as good as a barn. To the far left, far from the bee-gatherings of cars, A pack of ravens scuttle in the margin of a ditch (With a sound, if it could be heard, of cards shuffling) Eating some earthly remnant, some essence Of snake, a whipcord pulled to death Laying its blood-tar scar against new-fallen snow. They are in no hurry, as the snake is not. They are seven judges at a trough unburying justice. They dig up old pasts into new light, new stabs Adorning an ancient halo’s glory radiant as irises— That arrangement of spears around a central nullity: A void, a hunger.
All Is Calm
for Anna Moran
It was in winter that she left us, Her grey good voice gone still. Her laughter that caught us has kept us, Although her laughter has gone still. Her hands that held our own and patted, tutted And cajoled, upon her breast lie still. Snow like drumtaps on her coffin fell, And snow is falling on her calm grave still. Winter has entered, and she has left us. We gather remembering and grow still.
Twelve mourning doves walk abased in dust Soft as nuns at their small solemnities, Their tan wings folded back to balance The hiccupping strut that takes them back and forth, Nodding their sidelong eyes with white lids Disturbingly human, though no bigger than A pinky’s fingerprint, cooing docile as ghosts All together where the old dogwood dapples petals, Each claw-fingered step pawing the ashen earth. II Twelve mourning doves are cooing in a ring, Soft doxy voices that touch and soothe, such soft Wood-night wood-dark wooing forgetfulness Under dogwoods dropping pleasant last petals Under a gun-metal morning Under the weight of stars Disappearing blue.
A crush of snow and the house settles, mellows. A roofline of unshaved icicles greets a morning hangover Challenging the cold adjustment of dreams Their dark ache of song that passes the night hours. There’s something tremendous in a world erased overnight, Like listening to Wagner backwards or exploding dud ordinance. The afternoon funeral looks stark as the Donner party, A line of crows milling around the golden corncob. Afterwards, there’s an undeniable deaf amnesia— Something gracious has been mislaid, and then forgotten. You never knew so much weight of what is could be, That wings could be so heavy, could drag so low. Conversation stopped the day before last, afraid of more news: Cousins insane, grandmothers crippled and punctured, Divorce served with thin slices of the Christmas beast And a gravy of tears. And now the power of snow Shows itself in our guarded, hunched, held-close looks. Our hands are unable to dig out and find each other. Something vestigial in us is waiting for spring But we do not remember what a sparrow sounds like Or the shaggy look of a new tulip, blood buds of a maple tree. The house creaks like a warning shot, and a step breaks While carrying out fresh trash; the blender burns out, Innumerable bulbs are pinched and replaced, or left To add a new shadow like a shotgun blast; a totemic Crow bestrides the balustrade like an inkblot. Time dilates; we live in the pupil; we skate in circles Waiting for nothing, hands on our ears, eyes closed, Fingers no longer crossed in our nylon mittens. We had not lived here till the first loved thing had died here.
The years are burying our friends, And the beastly bees coming back in Spring Are buzzy again, the floods of flowers Trying on new dresses for new caskets. And the air, sweet as it is, is sour to me— A lone survivor smelling my way Amid fresh wreckage.
Now I know what poetry is for the widower said
Now I know what poetry is for the widower Now I know what poetry is for Now I know what poetry is Now I know what Now I know
My spidery jalopy body Mad hair scuppered and scalped in patches Eyebrows of pig bristles, hands daft crabs Muscle stripped to bait, a gristle-brisket Hung from this skeleton of hooks All mornings hate my face, spitting Sunfire in my eyes to emasculate dreams To reason me awake like a razor dancing In the splay hands of an anarchist ex-wife Pointblank as the ceiling Last night’s smoky martini longboat Rivers away through a hazard of stars— Puffed to nothing, interstellar dragon-smoke— The stolen opium of Chinese poets Drowned in their emerald slippers Worm-white, I face stacked racks of stairs The mute unbearable glaring of pets And reeking garbage-trucks of pitiless chores With the featherless soul of a beaten pillow Cored mauled punched ignored
Black Dish, No Cut Peaches Fine as the Sun
Black leaves in black water in a black bowl. There is, in it, more than a stir of waters, More than black leaves going round, the brim Wetted by whatever the interfering finger does. Whoever had eaten here has left the bowl To weather. Was it myself who sat and ate Fat-fingered peaches dripping with sun? Or was that some other, now that autumn’s come? Black leaves in black water in a black bowl Sit on the midnight veranda still as thieves.
The Harp Player
Wounded, the flying chords work their salve Deeper into the ear canal, A mix of melody and grindstone— The rhythmic pistons of a piano Upended, gutted, on silver display And stroked like an infarcted heart Until the pain leaves the strings And the audience cries at the beauty of rescue While the song whirls on…. And the harp player, proud and dark In his trim dinner jacket Turns away from your fraught tears And deeplier, and deeplier, Hunches around the wing of his harp.
Hurry, hurry the grasses say. They point the easy way, Hands over their heads Like divers finding the pool. Swiftly, swiftly the meadowlark Lances from the grass Easy into skies, swaying His wingtips as he goes. Calmly, calmly the sunset Sets the field afire. If my days like grass must burn, Let night like larks aspire.
"To myself I told a lie, I gave it all my heart. And to that lie I’m loyal That lies within my heart. I cannot unwind the coil I wound with all my strength. She was young who bent it, And I am old at length. The lie that lies within me Has daily shaped my days. And to that lie I’m loyal, Although I would part ways." I felt uplifted, Like champagne in a thin, bright glass Ted Hughes
Cows’ hooves stand, planted apart, in earth While flanks gild blank statues in the sun’s Afternoon onset, rank spillage yolk and gold. They jaw cud the way chain-smokers smoke, The way old husbands snore while soupy brown eyes Loom and ruminate, beautifully lashed orbs Seeing all... or seeing nothing.... It’s hard to tell.
The dawn field was a single whistling white, Endless star-white grass As my feet held steady Against the gigantic pull of earth. I stood like a horse watching the sunrise Emblazon the land, picking out the stripes of grass One by one, and blessing them As dawn went on toward day, and the horses Paraded out led by children And the time for lessons pinched me into speech. Pommel and throatlatch; cantle, stirrup; bridle and bit. Giddup, giddup, And the whole line of us rose into motion like a wave, The grass it’s endless sirrahs intoning, And still cool, still sheltered By some shadow of night’s arrested rest, The rustling unhaltered rest of stalls— Standing still in limb and spirit, eventide divine.
The spider diagrams a sentence punctuated by death. Death to the fly that tries a new language. Death to the butterfly pining for thistles’ pins. Death to the moonblind moth tumbling moonward. Death to the ant marching astray. Death to the inchworm one inch at a time. When her sentence is finished, rolled up and eaten, She embarks on another before night comes vamping. Her spindle seems limitless, and glistens. She rides the lines that terrify with a swift spidery bliss. Her grammar is immaculate and intricate as the OED. She latches each line with her embroiderer’s glue, Shaking her insides dry in the sun. When her final web blows forth, Shining skull-white with it’s pirate’s sail, Even she is impressed. Even she, seeing the benign design Big as a spread-fingered open-handed hello, Has second thoughts.
There’s a skunk skank you notice first, a burn Of urine marking a boundary like napalm— Beneath a porch, at the disastered end Of an abandoned barn, or where a quiet alley Narrows its waterway and tiptoe weeds Grow leggy after sunlight, the sky a blue trickle. Next, a bomb of exploded songbirds, never ravens, Their notes gutted that had drawn feral eyes, Old souls broken open as rotted ashcans and left Pocking the concrete apron with shotgun blacks, While at their queasy leisure in a patch of sunlight Stray rain-matted cats daintily lick their paws.
Cleaning the Bones
for Linda Johnston Muhlhausen
Slumped at her typewriter as at a toothy skull In an elephant graveyard where dry savanna cracks And a wrinkle of valley invites the eye to descend, The writer examines her soul like a dentist Poking the broken white keys til it hurts And prying the hurt out for a good gory look, The roots a bit bloody and the roof caved in. She tastes the cracked enamel with her pointed tongue, Sucks at the hole in the skull for blue eons Where flesh is wet and tender as a jellyfish, Translucent and useless as unset glue— The elephants’ ribs a risen house around her Until thinking fails and her pink pain returns. Stooping with loupe and a diamonddust drill She makes a new tooth out of any old thing: A pebble, a lost marble, a thumbnail, a screw. Bent like a grandmother washing an infant She rolls it left-right, she watches she etches She polishes the simulacrum with exquisite skill And screws the new tooth in with tongs and a grimace In the place in the skull where the old tooth smiled Perfectly white and perfectly dead.
In a Wood
Strip me of language that I might hear The owlet’s cry climb limb to limb Uncursed by human questioning. In nakedness of hunger or plumed with joy Let the V-sharp beak declare, Unhelped by any too-human ears. Let every ghostly echo some human word Displace; let the death of a mouse In the leaves be the mouse’s death. Banish my striving mind, invisible life! Let sap infuse my veins and a bark enclose This too-insistent skin. Slowly I leech into the buoyant night As the unknown owlet regains its perch, Open eyes diaphanous as moons. The forest, full-tenanted, surrounds us With wooden moans, twangs and strange Sighs I myself begin to imitate.
Cycle of Force
Tadpole grew angry at the slimegreen pond And legged it onto land. Frog was wroth with his dry mudbank And humped into the water. Maggot in the egg hatched mad at God And helicoptered off the great, dead face. Tongue abandoned its big-mouth chalice And leapfrogged after the fly. Missus laid her suds-bag of eggs, Windy reeds bent to the ground…. “Our pond is mirror-fresh, is cool,” She sang, until Bullfrog sun beat it crucible.
The Raccoon’s Nose
The nocturnal raccoon’s a clown of course With his merry bandito black butterfly mask Working the comic implications of moonlight and trash As he rummages through compost buckets Like reading a daughter’s diary, yesterday’s dirty coffee Casting a grainy grit haze over all the spoiled goods. His magician’s hands ferret out wands of hot dogs, Madcaps of eggshells, the delicious simmering mess Still to be made of last night’s abandoned dinner! And that old thief the moon has vampire fangs tonight, Grinning at his mischief, the quick work of chaos Hands divorced from conscience can make As if, in the minute it takes to return from brushing one’s teeth A miniature twister had landed on the back porch And pried life’s pasteboard scenery apart at the seams.... He waddles to the hollow half-sun of a grapefruit And sips its pink innards delicately as high tea; so delicately You’d swear there was the ghost of a tophat between his ears. The sweep of his ringed tail is spiffy as refrigerated minks, His bandit’s mask’s a mere costume for the evening’s masquerade— Rayed starlight hung up in splendid chandeliers above us, The ornate parquet flooring swept dustless for the dance As I bow to you through the sliding glass door And you bow to me, too, detaching the purple aperitif Of a discarded grape from its wiry dead stem.
The paling east belied the hurricane’s arrival As if harrying shadows had long since lapsed That were only coming up from behind in the west; Already a cloudweight of clotted darkness Owned the rest of the sky, and, in it, lightnings! And water like a tidal wave, a wet apron held Out before the belly full of aching waters. Already a thin ringing ran through uneasy gutters, A teetering high-pitched scree that made the dog look up— A squealing like metal wheels was rolling through the whole house, And the aluminum shutters wouldn’t latch for shit. We hurried with nails and plywood where we could, Beating out the light, keeping ourselves shut in To live out the time where we’d creeped safe. Our neighbor, a carpenter, helped drive the nails As we held up our hands steadying the awkward wood Until all that was left was to make coffee and wait It out, wait it out, while the carpenter napped On the couch. The wife petted the dog anxiously; The dog tilted his ears at the ceaseless screed outside, Myself quiet as a candle burning down when a long Gust suddenly had us all leaning east with the house, Counting ourselves and our luck when it finally passed And the roof settled back like a windswept hat. “Sixpenny nails,” was all the carpenter said, Turning back to sleep in the appalling weather, His shoes mud-knocked clean beneath a chair, The house hanging on but just barely.
First, lemon lengths of light trim the gables. The snow is easy still as if still first-fallen, All airy whiteness on eyelashes laid With the rods of trees black-wet beneath, a river Of wood roads, paths winter-asleep, though March is making The solid ground give out smoky wisps of new grass— The cold is best, you decide, swallowing glass, First gasp in a world of limitless ice, limitless slips As concrete steps stretch out and the day’s hunt calls. And all this as the dawn just gets going, the furious orange Retching up like a swimmer finishing his lunge His lionhead shaggy above the pool’s clean edge Red knuckles hoisting the weighted shoulders The dripping face averted as if too horribly strong. Dawn’s razorback breach has made its showing for today.
A smash of fire ran mad fingers over the skeletal barn. Stiff-faced horses had raised stone heads how many years, Great-grieved Agamemnon masks, old wood masks of Troy, Hankered nosefirst in clunked buckets of morning oats How many years? How many years had dark-cheeked Dignity strapped on a mummer’s gas-mask, Chewing handsful clouts of oats while slow eyes feast On dawn’s no-man’s land of rank grass pasturage, Dawn’s fist a misty cauldron in the bolt-hole valley Where sun wrestles roadflares all along one edge In daily ghostly flameless burning how many years Knuckling white the weedy line between sky and earth.
Damp shadows follow you through hairy woods Trailing—oh, a thousand things—as if a mist Bloodied, a mist made wine, made dark, made night. And through those shadows push spidery hands Making way for some lost face, crowning shoulders, As if walking here you were a stranger being born. In the middle of these trees arises a ghostly house Of grey timber, each plank knotted at its core, Its fieldstone chimney slipped like a old man’s back. Hampered daylight fills the tomblike home With strands of grey, and shows a battered mattress Where teenaged summer nights convene. Quiet heat, like a holstered gun, dots forehead And neck… and starts an itch of wonderment at all The echoed life that once raced these halls, Or ran barefoot upon the hill, or rolled a hoop, Long before any long shadow of wood took root And raised up leafy tabernacles, and blotted all.
People Beating the Fieldgrass
Everyone with a stick, or a cane, or an umbrella tightly rolled Is walking methodically through the fields beating the grass; Drowning in wild alfalfa, bullgrass, bluestem up to their armpits Their voices carrying the lost name like a repeated wave Susan Susan Susan Susan They tilt and straighten and walk and cry through the grass, Swinging wildly at the unmanageable weeds, the everywhere Interference of green and seed and tears twenty-four hours Have thrown in their faces as they pace and peer for darkness Susan Susan Susan Susan For some shadowy clot of curled being forgotten at the root, Dressed in gingham and bedded down exhausted, or tripped On a grey hidden risk bulking blind in omnipresent grass, Some black current having carried her where no ten year old Susan Susan Susan Susan The moth said: I am too shy, Too. In love to speak.
Look what wampum we have gathered! Here where we honeymooned all those moons Gone by... shells burning in the sunset. Again this year we walk the wide surfline— Shells scurry to our hooked inlet, Pried by tide and intent into wet pockets. I fish a nickel’s-worth of wisdom out And turn your smile into a hook of chuckles, Digging after delight like digging oysters. We trail the sound’s tideline on the lookout For what the year’s vastness has left draggled, Glints of glass in the endless backwash. Such a wealth of seawrack and stink! Backs bent like hooks to troll for treasure We hold on, hands hooked together.
Sordid love undid Its ribbons and buckles Left its pants collapsed In prairies of desire; Where buttocks tussled Love was sunburn A red all-over slap That cools like a sore tooth. Love came roaring With its juggler’s chainsaw Its hissing hot kisses, Its tongue of raw fire. Love crashed Its charring stars Into your chest and mine, Our mire of human Snicked alight Like matchsticks.
two weeks before
By this point, I thought we’d be gasp-laughing, The marriage corvette hitting seventy without a hitch Our faces wasted with spring sunshine and wild smiles, The unrepeatable in-jokes that couples conspire: Memorizing lewd news to appall old Aunt Ida And zap Uncle Chuck into a champagne spit-take, Or doodling Acapulco details of our honeymoon Drolly on napkins at midnight rendezvous. But, Winter snows buried our playful April to the roof! We, who’d thought to kindle time ’til our May bonfire A matchstick at a whack! Frozen roads skid caterers And budgets off track, timetables plowed under— Cold curses crash, chatter vile links in an icy chain That grapnels our nuptials with anvil force, winch- Ing us crippled toward some drooling giant’s Hinged maw, jaws-of-life prized Endless as a waterfall, awful as passed gas.
In the dimwelter of evening we met for a swim. The gawp of the lake aping the moon’s smooth light Took our floating bodies with a silver swallow As we swept our smiles filling with pushed water Into easy depths, trailing wings behind us as we Paddled and lunged, our hair returned to womb-wet, Your elbows now and then vivid with drips as a gutter Overpoured in storm and wind, the cold clean of it Cutting me into pure halves like a new pear, A pool of oblong moving shadow now, circling Wordless when dim clouds came obscuring the moonbolt That had been riveted so brightly above us— The stars coming singly clear when we stopped.
For the Love of Buttercups
For the love of buttercups in a field of buttercups We take our watery walk slowly in good boots, Glimpse sparse splatterings of streams here and there Amid the blat of frogs. Simmered mists lessen westward As day ignites those golden buttercups hard yellow, And hinting love makes way for plain statement— All sepal-soft affection turned ardent seed. Pale tender bulbs survive the flinch of winter here And bring their crayon yellow to another summer (Keeping blossoms true even in months of floods) Lifting their buttercup’s branching crowns in air Like fleets of saffron monks on backs of elephants As if no other season than their summer ever was, No colors worn but their summer’s burning brands, Blond chalices lapping open around our moving knees Where we dodge humped tussocks in old boots And hold old hands like two roots entwined until Some seeping inner mist arrives, veiling face and eyes For the love of buttercups in a field of buttercups.
We sat in the burning fields and shared a sunflower. Tall around us leaned the velveteen cornstalk shafts Of sunflowers by the mile. Jenny held the fallen god Like a pie plate in her open lap, the heedless seeds Black as tacks, teeming as ticks, getting picked One by one between index and thumb, eating their meat Like smashed bugs with staccato teeth and tongues. The sound of the fields was as a cat in a grocery bag, A papery bigness the dry leaves weaved into canopies That frittered the sun—the suns—nodding their lead heads Into bearable shreds of threaded light and shadow. Some of the sunflowers were still descending comets, Their yellow petals coned into harmless arrows, Their grin of seeds still hidden and small as a fist; Others, though, gave us the full black lamp treatment: Intense and downturned as saints at prayer Watching the sacrifice of their fellow at our hands, Pinching eyots of flesh that dribbled to our lips, Our raw fingers busy as boll-weevils, our eyes Themselves going dark as the million feeding seeds We ate and wiped antsy on our long blue dungarees, Standing at last amid a devastated harvest Of shells and whispering stalks, Silent with germinating thought— Done for the day that was not done with us.
The Fox’s Pelt
We woke to your skin on fire, feverous with dream. But day was docile, the sky a heating-duct grey As you shaved carrots skinless that odd afternoon A fox ran through the kitchen—on hard scrambling nails And subtle paws, his sharp mate-musk stink sticking Where spindle-legs, black-burnt matchsticks Had passed; ears alert, nose an arrow, eyes begging-wild As a starving child’s, his tail a lit roadflare. He shot, disoriented, past you: instantly loud, Perhaps rabies-mad, like BBs scattered on glass. All nerves, you said he’d run so near his pelt Airbrushed calves as you peeled—and your face Carried a strange look into evening after that. A preoccupation with the map of outside sounds, Hoots and windchimes, whinging dogs, paused you, rapt. Except for a pinch of laughter here and there, I’d’ve said you’d sent your lover an unanswered text You were so otherwhere and otherwise. And when I settled your faux fox pelt around your shoulders To escape suburban boredom for the theater, You touched the clean fur like a child’s scraped cheek And bit your lip, and pouted in the car, watching For some red flash in headlights that never came.
Stretched-out night taps at the tattling sash. Night like a dog wants to go for a long stroll, Tugging the cool coiled leash of me to get going— And I go, myself restless and dreamless loping Into my slip-on shoes, nabbing the worn Walking stick as the door clicks shut behind me and Night is everywhere at once like cold raindrops: On my skin and in my hair I feel the instant ice Of high stars; their frost, their freedom. And I Look up as if asked by the minister done with prayer And step onto friendly gravel, and beyond that, Picking a worn path that crackles through the field Like wild glazing on a shard of pottery. Taking my first breath at last I taste this tear.
Postcoital Olive Grove
Here I lie on a shield of dust Beneath a black-green dapple of olivetrees, The sun in patches alive as fireants Over my beloved as she snores, sotto voce, The wine rolled emptily out of reach As steep hills fall away to a scent of hidden seas And my forgotten pipe burns, itching my fingers, My teeth fresh and shivery as if smiling, The white plate bare of all but a few grapes. A fire was lit, the wood spat. Robert Macfarlane
Between tremendous white acts of clouds The sky cleared, Bare planks of an emptied stage. The day is unwritten that would speak there, Act aloud Into the blue gape, the sky’s splendid gob of light A blue umbrella opening over our knot of fishing boat, Green-gunwaled, We’d untied into the broad morning stream: Rainbows ran away from the deeply crooked prow, Uncatchably sailing ahead Of the painful pant of oars; those bold, effortful strokes. To the enviously easy sound of the river we gave up All sound of words, Watching blobs of bobbers distort, listening only To the silent howls of fish we hauled wobblingly Over our knees To lie swollen beside our muddy wellingtons.
Play keeps the otter on track for survival, Sweeps her back on her back for the key routines Of diving for meals, basking for supper. She’s got the alert look of a janitor on the hunt for trash, her variable mustache never settled beneath her nose But forever twitching and twigging to some Undiscovered opportunity for fun— Entering intimately the zippered water Swat-wheels of paws fanning liquid sunlight Riding the wide slide of a heavy wave Or pairing in play Fight midstream, two-eyed pirates Without a plank. An otter’s her own rodeo, her laughing lariat Hilariously cast to capture a tragic moon and cinch it into smiles. Always at wrestling rest with water, the otter Laps the stolid, waterlogged log eared with fungus And slaps curls of surf like a panjandrum As she comes round and round And goes around again, Easy as leaves in autumn wind. She’s never less than slick, a weight of laughter Oiling her pelt, keeping her slim and wealthy. She’ll eat a fresh-bitten fish like eating a mirror, Endlessly eager after silver and blood, the good new stink That fattens her milk for pups when they come Mewling into the grassy holt under willows— Blind naked and crawling longwise to find furred teats, They’ll ride their ready mama all night like a raft.
Up from the bottom Of my belling boat, I saw Sky, only sky. A quick electric Cut pale as paper. Around me loured the sounds Of sky, white whispers Like smoke unrolling, The shifting sheets Of making a fresh bed. Such air! Unreeling invisibly over me— Nothing but indigo, One indigo cube, cut By my inward gunwales, My bolt-hole Unanchored as a cloud... Swiffering west, west, west As the stream hisses As my fresh eyes dream Of only this one Huge acre of blue.
Arrival by Water
The skiff put in with a harsh hush of gravel at the island’s edge. Nobody noticed the fog’s snug hoodie with the broken woods before us Opening on the campsite, the ashen eye of the old put-out fire Centering where we would raise the spider web tents and hunker down For a long week of stories, the tipped glint of eyes in a sleeping bag, Days spent loping about the island’s sandy pines and warped shrubbery Or reading in the drifting skiff among junkyards of stumps And the loud flap of herons fishing. Sparks sang in the campy air That first night, casting strange ensigns in the edge of sight As we gathered our civilization to a knot of masks hunched Grimly around the burning socket of earth, the terrible tribute Of twigs pulled and piled skyward, the orange ingot of log Sacrificed like a length of man clipped and thrown away Where the frightwig fire climbed, feeding Our meaningless stories with death’s spat light. Kathy heaved away into distressed shadow, and Dan Sheared off after her with a joke, their tent argument eventually Shivering with reconciliation as Manny chuckled ‘Life!’ That was the first day. The water wrinkled like a face In front of the prow, and that was the second day. Third day in, We set out for food more than what the river would give Willingly to our lines and time out of its silver mouth and Into ours; there were small deer and wild pigs scattered Shotgun throughout the tossed wreckage of woods, And we would tackle and prepare one or go hungry We swore, shaking on it after the tar of morning coffee. Dan, Manny, and myself, Samuel, headed east to start Our circuit of the island heading toward a swampy dip That attracted birds, since even a duck would serve, Plucked and picked clean, while Jen and Kathy stayed To clear the breakfast char away and order camp, Scoffing at our oaths and waving us away with laughter. Once beyond the distracted clatter of camp, we hushed Into a pack, Manny taking point as we arrowed into woods, Tuning booted steps to silence as precisely as monks: No confusion of intentions invests our steps.
Smoke discloses The campfire’s claws Roped close To our greasy offal. If life is light It grabs such cast-off Daintily, Chews clawsfuls.
There’s less seen, although the seeking is ceaseless. The olivey fibrous tough stalks find needles of shadow Even when orange noon crouches in the valley licking. A flotilla of mice could be passing, washed in grasses, Invisible as whiskers, a rustle in the rough pampas. A fox, a squirrel, a snake here and there swaying S-like And still there’s no hissing insistence but endless grass. Like a paper screen behind which a dancer disrobes, The grass seems flat, yet folded, yet flat.
Myself flat in the water-mirror, with the hanging jowls And hooded eyes of time, am made rainbow-wavery, irised By the river’s uneaseful striving, acres of stained glass Finned with strafing rain and clubbed morning light Where hidden fish in seeming millions jump blind After duplicitous raindrops instinct craves into insects Until brawny brass clouds are bundled off the map And my baited line laces whippets in water’s renewed calm, Begging for fish-morsels to bite and crimp Fighting jaws on a bended hook joyed deep Into a catfish’s prow of snout, barb and shaft deep, Pulled mastered home by fisted reel, my miniature Mill-wheel of undoing. At length I clambered ashore, At length felt the knife’s finesse deftly Enter without flicker or spur the sudden Blood guts spreading gushed for thumbs Peeling the eatable fish to its depths. Its heart-spigot spat incessantly, stressfully red Until my steel puncture found its bubble, and red Waters ran away from the wound with a dying flush As flesh lapsed; lungs and bladder; intestine, crop and liver— Food for flies on the cracked, caked-dirt bank, The sudden blood a Y-river to trip-up cascaded ants Busily bulked at the stream of life falling stinky there, A snarl of amber snakes dropped drowned from clouds, My green waders holding me whole in eely skin.
Here among the dead Sun’s hard discards Lies an excrement Of mud unleavened Where the river leaves Off lapping, leaping, For August heaviness— Lethargic shallows that trap The trespasser’s shoe, Mark him mid-thigh With handprints of mud As he labors for the grey shale Shore, the vivid crevasse Through which, slipshod, he entered This endless kingdom of mud Glistening and viscid, Lacquered tomb of frogs And pizzicato flies attending The deathbed of glittering fish Greenly gasping Slashed gills amid a tinder Of leftover rainbows.
The slow, snapping, fatal hook-faces Withdraw beneath peaty murk, guinness-dowdy stout; Stellae of stumps jut up their ancient wood turtlenecks, Interrupting radar ripples the ancient heads send out— Long antediluvian thoughts, green only in sap, in blood As old water uncoils to flatness. Daisy-dainty mossflowers crown the right-hand stump, Deeply ambiguous as dew, yellow-white as sunnyside eggs. I sit stiff in the splinter canoe until turtles return Blipping the surface like rain beginning, eye drill-holes black as the underworld In ratty light that skirts the island’s belt of mulchy decay. They arrive bald as ambassadors, bold as monarchs From their dipped-in-oil underkingdom, leaf plantation Of soft coffee grit that finds the cracks in graves. To what side of experience are they wet stepping stones? II Cornea-bulbed backs rise darkly coated as frying pans, Stub flippers studded with badger-cleats fanned out Wound-strike ready, forever extended as a garden tool Beneath the camouflage of river—its mirror deceits Part and parcel of the shadow-play turtles stage. Poked heads are wizened critics’ barbs, brainlessly sharp. Will they sort the worthy and unworthy, like Anubis? When winter steps to the river, fetching its cape of ice, These creatures bury themselves hind-first In muskrat burrows, settle-in in lump-mud debris; They lodge naked beneath rotted eye-arches of logs, Cozied dim in the underworld under summer’s business— Occasionally guessably visible below thick mid-season ice, They roll out of hiding like heavy wheels of revelation churning, Swimming slow and white as ghosts beneath the flying skaters’ feet.
Meeting a Deer
A scumbled scuttle, a tamped fusion of hooves Rattles my attention from a slouchy doze Aslant a twig-burst hawthorn were I’d found An old oblong of sunlight to coffin in an hour, While noon leans onward like a runner sketching Light-trails toward a dash of yellow ribbon: here A deer, disconsolate, nuzzles sweetgum leaves, Eating green stars steadily unto Kingdom Come; I see before me fine-grained flecks of flank Like a hazy TV left on long past the last show…. Her head is shy and broadly-spaded as a snake’s, The leaflike ears alert, the one dark eye I can see Potent as an eclipse—umplummable, purplish Depthless blacks, while her lips work the sweetgum And I wait without motion, floating raftless And buoyant in my Dead Sea nap—so close I inhabit The trembling huff of her nostrils, sour and warm, Her limber length trim as an unpulled scull At rest for this waste minute tide-bereft, Weaving and unweaving in the woods’ waves.
A snowy owl puts himself alone in a room with the moon. He is silver as a Christmas basket, and the moon hangs silver too High up in trees’ intricate netting, ribbing the night absences. They present, from a certain oblique angle beneath them, A pair of wary skulls absolute in their terrible whiteness: Death and his hungry buddy divine retribution, perhaps. Both of them fly at us in the engineered silence of ages On wings of light like devouring angels, gowned and ornate. Witness them, the feathered one and the bald one up there: Both of them honeymooning or playing space chess or whatever Alone in a room together that we call heaven.