Sounds that twisted
around the room like smoke,
where I did not want
to find them, but I find them
over and over. Father,
bless your hair.
Bless your hammer
and your no-song whistle,
your voice, your strange
language--embarrassing to me
once. Too lyrical, too vulgar.
But father, bless your hair:
sculptural, short, black
lamb's wool, steel wool
like your voice--gravel
underfoot when I'd walk
home from school. Bless
your voice, the gravel
underfoot, your hammer,
your strange language twisting
like smoke, biting like a snake
the head of which I wanted
to stroke or crush with my heel.
And your whistle father,
and when you'd stop
in the middle of your work,
as if something had cut
away the part of you
that wanted to sing.
A box of Chopin nocturnes handed down
from the other side of my mother's death--
evening gowns in trash bags making a little
Golgotha of their own right in the corner
of that studio we had spent all morning
emptying out--uncandled cold chaperoned
through the sill. Lullabies all of us had
already heard while drinks kept going round
the parlor after her wake assembled now
into makeshift history--bits of tenderness
discarded down the cosmos slide, each night
a phantom limb, the hours trapezing over
that sea of anonymous faces where sidereal
glances scale up the piano's mirrored lid.
In later paintings--
a Brueghel, a Dali--
a hill could also be a breast
grazed by clouds, the breast
of a woman lying on her back
facing heaven. But in this painting
by the Osservanza Master
(about whom nothing is known,
not even his real name)
the hill is just a hill
beneath an arch of cirrus,
although it swirls like cream
to a soft peak, although it hides
a distant church blushing in the dusk.
I love this painting,
no larger than a leaf
of notebook paper.
Its sharp thin brushstrokes
shiny as currycombed hair
And I love the story it tells:
Saint Anthony Abbot tempted
by a heap of gold. Stranger than any
hill transformed into a breast
is that the pile of gold has vanished!
Yet the Saint is still
so distinct you could lift him
off the panel. His hands cupped
like a calyx holding its flower
he gazes downward
at the damaged place
where the gold has been,
where now a small pink ghost lingers
like a kiss on the hillside.
But it's hard to know if he's still
surprised by the temptation
he'd once found at his feet,
or by the rabbit crouching there, forever
bearing a tree rooted in air.
Or is he simply amazed
that what he never had was taken away
After a hard rain, a sudden clearing.
Puddles shine on the gravel path
Winding down to the meadow where smoky wisps
Rise from the warm ground, low earth clouds
That thin and vanish; and now
The birds start up again, and the crickets.
What if a happy life is only a long succession
Of happy moments; if they come unbidden
And the virtue that serves us best is simple readiness,
Mere openness to the occasion, if the sycamore
Swaying whenever the wind moves by
Serves as our great exemplar, sage, and prophet?
I hope not. I hope the efforts I've made
To claim my life as my own and give it meaning
Lead in the end to a happiness more alive
And lasting than any that fortune offers
Whenever she pleases, the random bounty
Impossible to anticipate or encourage.
My efforts, my patching of roofs and windows,
The writing of invitations, the widening of my guest list,
The mastery of guitar chords, the library work
On the history of landscape in water color and oils,
What exactly they add to the world of hills and valleys
That the hills and valleys should be grateful for.
And then this hard rain and sudden clearing,
This low sun, these rosy clouds that I interpret
As proof I'm included in the lucky flow of gifts
Circling the earth, offering me a welcome
Hard to resist, without conditions or reservations,
With nothing expected of me, nothing to be earned.
What will become of these
my many lives,
abandoned each morning abruptly to their own fates?
Of the fox who stopped to look up at me,
bright death stippling her muzzle,
and announced--clearly, simply--"I was hungry"?
Of the engine left half-disassembled,
the unmendable roofleaks, the waiting packed bags?
Cloudbellies of horses drinking at sunset.
Fierce embraces remembered half a day if at all.
Even the bedside jar of minute and actual seashells
wavers and thins--
though each was lifted, chosen,
I no longer recall if it was in joy or distraction,
in foreknowledge or false belief.
How much more elusive, these half-legible scribblings.
If souvenirs at all, they are someone else's.
As each of my memories,
it seems, is destined to be someone else's,
to belong to a woman who
looks faintly like me and whom I wish well,
as one would any stranger passed in a shop, on the street.
Have you been there?
If so, can you describe the shape of the shadows?
When you entered, did anyone greet you?
Did the moss hug your foot or a jay screech in your ear?
Were you afraid you would not get back?
Did they ring a bell?
How many times, and what did it sound like?
Did a horse bow its head by the side of a road?
Did a single feather lie at the clearing?
Did a green wave cascade into a grove?
Did the flavor of light infect your sleep?
Did a toad leap from the dust onto a twig?
Did deer turn in terror as you passed?
Did a doe lick your hand and find you wanting?
Did you behold a flower that cannot fade?
Was the sky so empty that you fell upward?
Did the needles of a pine tickle your nose?
Did you sniff the ghost of the cedars of Lebanon?
Did you follow a petal blown to the edge of the sea?
Did you wake with a sheet twisted around your throat?
Did you call out?
Did you kneel at a blade of grass or at the mound of an anthill?
Did you ask for a way in or a way out?
Did a bough sway imperceptibly?
Did you rest your hand on the shoulder of a god?
Did you open a piece of fruit and offer a portion of it to the sun?
How long did it take to finish, and were you satisfied?
Did a fly sip some water from a stone?
Did you touch the haze on a plum, its blue cloud?
Did you rub its skin until it lost its bloom?
Did the day burn in a crow's eye?
Were the stars so clear another heaven appeared behind them?
Did you hear the wind consoling the leaves?
Did you look inside the cap of a mushroom, and part the curtain of disbelief?
"The fish are in the fishman's window," the grain
Is in the hall, "the hunter shouts as the pheasant falls."
That shout rises from deep in Adam's chest.
The great trawlers pull in the shining bodies.
Horses' teeth rip night from sleepy day.
We are all like Nebuchadnezzar on his knees.
Because the greedy soul gained its teeth in the womb,
More than one twin died in the safest place;
We fell into the doctor's hands with haunted eyes.
We inherited much when we inherited teeth.
We will never have one whole day of peace.
An old horse will die or a house will burn.
Each evening we reach for our neighbor's food.
Each night we crawl into imaginary beds;
Each midnight we visit the darkness with Saturn.
We can go on sitting in the Meeting House,
But the greedy one in us will still survive.
One cry from the crow contains a thousand more.
Why must the noble rose
bristle before it blooms, and why
must the frost declare
allegiance to the dew?
Don't tell me the robin's
could not be denied.
I've heard the magpie's lies.
Outside my window,
consort in a cedar tree,
fat and happy to be free
of all desire--ah, but
that's not true! See
how they dance and turn
when I throw out the seed.
It was curled on the pavement, forehead to knees,
as if it had died while bowing. Its stripes
were citrine-yellow, and the black of a moonless
starless, clear night. It did not
belong on a street, to be stepped on, I picked it
up in a fold of glove, and in the taxi
canted it onto a floral hankie,
a small, thin, cotton death-glade--
and the bee moved, one foreleg,
like an arm, feebly, as if old. It seemed
not long for this world, and it seemed I could not
save it, and had been saved, by its gesture,
from smothering it all day in my bag. I would have
liked to set it in a real glade,
but I thought that it might still, right now,
be suffering, yet I could not kill it
directly--I shook it, from the hankie, out the window,
onto West End Avenue,
hoping that, before a tire
killed it, instantly, it would hear
and feel huge rushes of tread and wind,
like flight, like the bee-god's escape.
Crow light: I call it that at dawn
when one wing, then this other, bursts in flame,
catching the sun's rising. The stupid bird,
dipping his hunk of bread into the water,
doesn't know the Mississippi is my friend:
it disgorges in the gulf the frozen states I came from.
Mississippi! She was a grade school spelling word
in Detroit for me. I spelled well. Now, forty years later
I jog beside her interchange of gold and silver lustres,
always too much in love with any surface of the world.
But the crow: I know it's not the same bird
morning after morning. Still, the dipping of his beak
into this water, softening a breakfast for his gullet
demanding, like mine, daily satisfactions
lets me pretend every day's the same.
On one chunk of that bread some day up ahead
my last day is written, clear as the printing
on my birth certificate on file in Michigan.
Crows dip their bread. Daily, I run for breath,
hoping to extend my distance, even a little.
The Mississippi muddies, clears, according to the factories
up North, the local, snarled measures against its dying.
Slowly, even the river is passing from us while I run.