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.

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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.”

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.

 

Sickness is a process that can’t be hurried, can’t be short cut. It is a prison that holds you against your will as you plead “innocent, innocent.” It’s the world reduced to the dimensions of a bed, a hospital room, the cold touch of instruments, strange beeping sounds. “Why me?” you cry. “What did I do to deserve this?” Still it comes. Inexorable. Implacable. Indifferent to your entreaties. Then, one day, if you’re lucky, it’s gone, leaving in the middle of the night. Your body, exhausted, weak, sighs in relief. You see the light outside. The day opens itself to you, inviting you back with its warm fingers.


After a Long Illness

I
you return to life
as if from a perilous trip

having been to a place
whose borders—

curtained in fog—
lifted & fell

lifted & fell
offering glimpses

of the world you left
indifferent to your absence

II
on your return
you see everything anew

& your eyes sting with gratitude
at the simplest things—

a walk in the park clothes that close
at the back

bed free of tangled tubes
a body that listens to you

III
after a week
you clear your room—

aspirin meds thermometer
get well cards—

& declare yourself cured
like Gabriel Gargam at Lourdes

who tore off his sheet    rose
from his stretcher & walked

IV
you’re your old self again
but different too

having learned that the body
can betray you

you strut among the well
as if the recent past

were an old discarded coat
but you still count the days

a marked man
who knows his future

is only a provisional gift
of freedom

A Zen story about the importance of learning to let go: An old monk is traveling with a young neophyte when they come to a place in a river shallow enough to wade across. At the crossing point they encounter a prostitute who appears to want to cross the water but is hesitating. The old monk walks up to her, introduces himself, and asks if he can help her across. The woman gratefully accepts. So he lifts her on his back and they cross the stream, followed sullenly by the young monk. On reaching the other side, the two monks leave the woman and carry on in silence. After several miles, the young monk, clearly troubled by what took place at the river, admonishes his older companion, “Monks should not touch women like that, let alone carry them in their arms.” The old monk looks quietly at the younger man for a few moments, then nods and says, “I left the woman at the riverbank but you are still carrying her.” Learning to let go is a discipline that grows out of experience. It’s hard to do until you’ve known loss and survived it. I felt a kind of empathy for the young tree that inspired the following poem, knowing how hard it has been in my own life to know when it’s time to let go.

The Occasional Stubborness of Trees

 

The six-foot sapling stands against the wind & cold,

a full crown of leaves, long dead, clattering

like castanets at the end of its spindly arms.

 

February & still they cling, though all the other trees

along the row have given up their fall attire, relinquishing

their red, orange, and yellow fires for Amish grey.

 

But this one holds on, despite the laws of nature, despite

its own kind’s common sense to slim down in winter

so as not to risk a limb-breaking load of snow.

 

Is it ill? Is there some reason for this aberration when,

by all accounts, and knowing what is best, it should have

let its leaves fall? But why do I judge this tree at all?

 

How many times, despite the good advice of friends, despite

what I already know, have I seen this same stubbornness in me

and, oblivious to consequence, refused to let go?

Even within our commercialized holiday traditions, some bells and a shaking harness can bring us back to what matters.

 

Worlds’ End: Varner’s Christmas Tree Farm

 

After paying the entrance fee, we follow the lines

through the Holiday Shop, then out

to where the wagons wait, decked in festive

 

greens and filled with hay. We take our seats

behind the driver, who stares ahead, absently

fingering the horses’ reins of cracked leather.

 

Families in neon-colored jackets crowd together

on prickly bales, the children plugged into

ipods and nanos as their parents, unheard,

 

exclaim on the joys of country life—the quaint

barn about to fall, the “homemade” apple cider,

the small flock of listless sheep pressed against

 

the far side of their pen to avoid the groping

hands of the children. Beyond the driver’s slumped

shoulders, the landscape rolls away, past

 

snow-dusted fields to a dark barricade

of trees, and beyond that to a scar

of rooftops that climbs an invisible slope

 

to a team of traffic lights blinking robotically

red and green. Miles away, but visible still

in the frigid air, the smoky plumes of the nuclear

 

plant rise like pillars to hold the cloudy lintel

of sky. In every direction, the land that once

was fields and woods now lies beneath

 

a crazy quilt of developments, each named

to honor the natural features that they destroyed.

The wagon gives a jerk and our bumpy ride

 

begins along the quarter mile of road to the sparse

rows of Christmas trees we’ve come to cut down.

The muddy path, already slick from use, exudes

 

a muted stink, as if to add bucolic authenticity.

And for a moment it all works—the snow,

the clip clop of horses’ hooves and quiet jangling

 

of harnesses quell the wagon’s chatter

as we soak up the soothing, unfamiliar sounds

like dry gullies long deprived of water.

Having grown up with dogs but never owned one myself, I’ve always been interested in the passion that the canine species can arouse in us humans. They are like some magic drug, turning us away from our craziness and helping us gain, at least for a moment, some measure of sanity and peace. My mother is a lifelong dog lover and this poem was inspired by her daily walks around the neighborhood and the obvious affection that her canine friends hold for her.

 

 

As on Earth, So in Heaven

 

The old woman with three legs

had one that clicked

to tell them she was coming.

 

Through chain link fences

and wooden gates they’d poke

their noses

 

waiting to lick her blue-veined

hand as she bent over her cane

calling each by name

 

in a feathery voice as soft

as the fur on their ears

and cooed and clucked

 

at their silliness as they danced

and ran in circles

to please her.

 

Whatever the weather,

she’d click through

the neighborhood

 

in sunhat or snow hat,

sneakers or fleece-lined boots,

stopping at each yard

 

to scratch their assorted ears

pricked, folded, dropped,

and buttoned.

 

It was agreed

that such a rare example

of interspecies fellowship

 

was worthy of proper tribute.

And so on the night of the day

she sighed and fell peacefully

 

still—which they all knew

without being told—

they barked to go outside

 

and there beneath a sky

as wet black as their noses

they raised a proper canine

 

raucous that chorused up

into the night and out beyond

the stars until it reached

 

the ears of long-gone friends

who sprang from their naps

and chased to the gates,

 

barking and poking their noses

through so they could be

the first to greet her

 

 

Most poets, at one time or another, take up the challenge of Wallace Stevens’  “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and try to write a poem in 13 numbered stanzas. For some reason, which I can’t explain, this format is irresistible to the poetic mind. I, alas, have been no less immune to this temptation than many of my colleagues. My attempt is focused around the experiences and thoughts that led me to writing poetry.

13 Ways of Coming to Poetry

I

there was the clock always ticking

and the tightening squeeze of what

seemed like destiny

 

II

the mother found the picture wanting:

the sky must come down to the ground     she said

seeing how it was   the child turned to words

 

III

each night she whispered the same question to the sky:

are we merely to be

or are we gifts to each other?

 

IV

like a lonely songbird of winter

longing abided in the bare branches of her heart

 

V

learning to write her name   she saw how

the black line danced after her pencil point

 

VI

when words collided, music spilled

she came to love the sound of this blood

 

VII

nothing escaped unmolested   even the innocent sunrise

felt the rough hands of her translation

 

VIII

she loved the soft trailing curves of night

its innuendoes and

absence of certainty

 

IX

words were like butterflies

she liked to parse their etymological wings

and see what made them flutter

 

X

like Frankenstein she coveted the act of creation

the thrill of seeing her scribbled creatures come alive

 

XI

there were two doors—one to awakening

the other to despair

she took them both

 

XII

realizing no gods could help her

she began to make her own graven images

 

XIII

yesterday she made another

slender scratches rising stubbornly from the paper

like black stalks in a winter field

Looking at young parents today, I am struck by the intensity of their desire to exercise perfect parenting skills. It makes me remember my own days of active parenting, when I was plagued by doubt that I wasn’t doing justice to our children’s potential or providing sufficient motivation or discipline to help them grow into the perfect adults they were meant to be. We have such hopes when our children are born but all too soon we’re bedeviled by our growing list of failures and shortcomings. Still, despite these embarrassing failures, most children turn out just fine. The freedom to love without guilt is a gift that only comes with grandparenthood, when there are no strings attached and when we’re released from that burden of self-judgment that overshadows all we do as young parents. Thinking back on the moments before the birth of our second child, I recalled the feelings of hope and anxiety that accompany these life-changing events. How would I do this time? Would I screw it up or would I wisely apply the lessons I’d learned from raising our first? As much as I wanted the answers then, I knew my success or failure at parenting would be revealed only in retrospect and probably through the critical or loving assessment of my own children, to whom, as excuse, I would only be able to answer, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Planetary

What did I know about the unknown galaxies

of motherhood or you, hovering near the birthing

room door, about the alien role of father.

Parenthood was still just a glorious idea,

like humans landing on the moon.

 

Shunted aside by the nurses, you could only watch

from the corner as I panted and groaned, caught

in the electrifying grip of my contractions.

To busy yourself, you kept a record of their intervals

as you peeled an orange, letting the torn rind fall

like pieces of planetary crust into your palm.

 

Between contractions I watched you study

the glistening globe in your hand, tracing its bumps

and creases as if it were some newly discovered earth

whose secrets you intended to learn or one of those

Magic Eight Balls we played with as kids whose answers

we’d wait to float to the surface, telling us

what our future would hold.

Recently I have been reading online about how slaves were captured in Africa, marched to slave ships, and brought to America. While nothing can truly capture the horror of that journey and the terror of facing an unknown future in a strange land, this small poem hopes at least to contrast what the journey was like for the slave and non-slave.

 

How They Came

not in pretty carriages piled with leather trunks

—in staggering coffles   skin chewed raw

metal cuffs   wood yokes —

one fall     neck broken

 

not in broad-beamed ships plying tobacco   rice   rum

—in fearsome brigs named Jesus   Mother of God

loose- or tight-packed as the captain chose

the greater the stench, the greater the profit

 

not in carpeted cabins   hammocks   wooden berths

—in airless holds   crammed on wooden shelves

no room to turn or sit   no pillow

but a chain mate’s shit

 

not with hand shakes   hearty slaps   relieved embraces

—with a cacophony of shouts     shoves and whips

their meaning grasped though words not understood

saying welcome to America