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My father died a few years ago and I wrote this one poem about being with him in hospice and watching him slowly transform and finally disappear. In many ways it was a positive experience—being able to be there for a loved one as the “transition”—but those last two weeks of his life also highlighted the inscrutability of death—how closely you can observe someone going through the dying process and not have a clue as to where they’re going, and finally, where they’ve gone.

I Will Arise and Go Now

We gather beside your bed
glowing dimly in the room’s dark
like a dying campfire
and eke out whatever warmth
we can from the trace
of smoke you’ve become.

The fullness of your face
has receded like a wave
exposing an unfamiliar
landscape of planes and hollows.
Your body, inside its cocoon
of sheets, has shrunk and curled

as if preparing for transformation.
I am writing all this down—
keeping a faithful inventory
of your dying
in hopes it will yield a clue
to where you’re going

since you’ve left
no other information.
In the stifling stillness
of the room
I pick up my phone
to search for a poem.

I find “Lake Isle of Innisfree”
and read it aloud, thinking I see
you stir like a leaf lifting
in the breeze,
thinking that our bodies, too,
are like cabins of wattle and clay—

makeshift shelters
that finally give way,
leaving us homeless
and our loved ones suddenly
displaced, searching
for where there once was a door.

 

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Either View is the Same View

We spend so much time searching, envying, wanting, accumulating. The true gift of age is to recognize, though it seems always belatedly, that the life you’ve been seeking has been there all along.

Either View is the Same View

One mountain closes you in
another opens you up
But this has nothing to do
with the mountain

If you cannot see
from the peak
go back down
to the foothills
Either view is the same view

We spend hours counting
lovers raises corner suites
Forget counting
The coin we seek
is already in our pockets

Does the marigold complain
that it lives with weeds?
Does the cockroach envy
the snowy egret?

The mountain has nothing
to say to you
but there is much to learn
from its wisdom

Big Dreams

Life has a way of taking the wind out of your sails and reducing your arrogance and self-assurance to a quiver. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, it will reveal a surprising truth to you in unexpected ways or places. Here’s a poem.

 

I Was Supposed to Save the World Today

I was supposed to save the world today
but instead I stopped to watch some children play
with twigs and leaves along the stream.

I was going to write a poem that woke us
from ignorance and fear and stopped all conflict
with a stroke of my impassioned pen,

but dreams of such size seemed suddenly naive
as I watched a snail weigh down a leaf
and glue it to the ground with slime.

 

The Place We Remember but Cannot Name

Many years ago my daughter woke from a nightmare and I was unable to comfort her. There was something she needed I could not provide. A place, or a state of being perhaps, that she wanted to return to but could not reach. While I cannot say what this place is, I long for it as well. The place where all questions are answered, all worries and threats dissolved. I came close to it once. felt it move through me like a river, connecting me to everything as I stood there transfixed. Joyful. Not desiring a thing but to stay like that forever. Do we all long for this place? Does it exist as anything more than fantasy? Inchoate hope? I don’t know. All I know is that there’s a road I seem to be traveling and it’s leading back to the place I came from. I don’t know where it is, but I want to be there again.

Shelter

When she woke, crying
And I found her, legs clenched
to chest, back pressed

to wall as if to make
herself invisible
to what scared her,

all she could say is
I want to go home.
You ARE home, I assured her

as I pulled her close.
No … HOME, she said.
I want to go home.

And what else could I do
but make a cradle of my arms
and rock the small taut

ball of her body, wanting
to be the womb
she could never return to

or, further back still,
that other home we never stop
longing for.

Guilt of the Living

When a day is especially nice, like today—October sun, leaves turning, air cool in spots, toasty warm in others—I can’t help but think of loved ones and friends who are no longer here to enjoy these simple, precious things. And if I admit it, I feel a bit guilty to be alive, especially when I’m not fully appreciating the things that are the true gifts of life. And, like most guilty feelings, I immediately displace and project them onto something else. In the case of this poem, back onto the dead.

 

The Dead Make You Selfish

 

with their impossible burdens. I want to run away

or throw up my hands beside their graves, unable to convince them

my life is not theirs,

 

that I can’t bear the weight of their losses.

Instead, I focus on simple things—an apple sweating with cold in the fridge,

a ladder of light climbing toward a window,

 

the yellow crocus blooming

on the frozen frontier of my lawn—things that carry their own weight,

that are devoid of expectation.

 

But it’s never enough for the dead.

They won’t stop moaning about what they miss—smell, touch, how air moved

around their bodies.

 

They won’t hear of my grief—

of my life being out of control—disturbing my sleep with their entreaties,

badgering me with their hunger.

 

As if there were something I could do,

being here on this side when they’re on the other—as if living without them

weren’t punishment enough.

Fair Play

I often bemoan what our human activity has done to nature and how ignorant most of us are about its importance to our survival. With all the talk of climate change, I tend to think of her (anthropomorphically speaking) as a victim of our assaults. But recent events—hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, droughts—remind me that she can easily confound our feelings of superiority. While we may diminish her, she will never be under our control. To prove the point, she’s devised very clever and creative ways to prove her superiority, reminding us we’re not always the predator.

Blue for a Reason

When gardening in October, wear a helmet beneath a Black Walnut tree. Its fusillade of nuts can concuss the brain. Never walk in the woods alone, which delights in root trip, rock slip, and nettle sting. On trails, watch for hurling bucks, 300 pounds of antlered momentum a hoof away from your head. Be prepared for sudden encounters with snakes posing as sticks, rabid squirrels, nervous porcupines. And never think you’re immune from the threats of nature’s tiniest creatures—viruses, bacteria, malaria-infested mosquitoes, plague-carrying fleas. In Australia, the sting of the half-inch Irukandji Jellyfish is 100 times more potent than a cobra’s. When trekking through the desert, watch your step. Beneath your boot may be a six-eyed sand spider whose venom is the worst on record. Be careful where you place your hands in a rainforest. One bite from a Bullet Ant and you’ll writhe in agony for 24 hours. That cute little frog with the indigo skin? It’s blue for a reason—one touch will bring a powerfully painful end. Camouflage, polymorphism, mimicry—nature’s full of endless tricks. Spiders that imitate bird dung, insects green and flat as the leaves on which they’re perch, Angler Fish that waggle wormlike appendages in front of their dagger-toothed mouths. The truth is, it’s dog eat dog out there. So when outside, be alert for sudden looming shadows, birds falling silent, dogs lowering their ears. There are sometimes signs. Sometimes not. In the Everglades, if it starts to rain, avoid standing under a Machineel tree whose sap poisons the dripping water, raising blisters on the skin. And do not eat its fruit, as did the one in whose memory it’s called “little apple of death.”

Final Words

There’s a tradition in Zen Buddhism that monks, on their death beds, compose a final poem. Beloved Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s final poem was as follows:

Sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

I sometimes wonder, if given the foresight to recognize my impending death, what I would say. Would I try to express everything I’d learned in this life, would I bring each family member in and confer on him or her the burden or insight of my wisdom? Would I crack a joke, make a wry insightful observation? Or would I simply make a passing comment with no particular import, like “Can I have a drink of water, please?” Most of us never know when we’re going to die or what our final words will be. Or to whom. So maybe we should be more careful about what comes out of our mouths. Maybe we should be sure to say what we want to say before we no longer can. At least the monk in this poem was able to get his last words down on paper, though I wonder whose words they really are.

On the Night Before His Death, the Old Monk

dreams of a boat crossing a river
its oar breaking
before it can reach the other side.

The next morning, he prepares
to write a last poem.
Gathering his four treasures—

inkstone, inkstick, brush,
paper white as a crane
beneath a full moon—

he grinds his ink and begins.
The strokes flow,
precise as a stalking tiger,

light as a flitting bird, each right
in its expression,
each a soundless note of music.

In a few moments it is done—
this last gift
of consciousness, last act of body.

Outside, a passing breeze collides
with a stand of bamboo.
Finches chirp among the chattering

leaves. The morning sun toasts
the back of his neck
as it reaches the distant summit

of Mt. Kurama and keeps climbing.
The monk lays down
the brush and studies his creation,

as if not his own, then closes his eyes.
He will be found,
hand lying across the poem

its graceful kanji like small boats
traversing a sea of nothingness,
one of them with a broken oar.