Advent 2020

This poem is set on the night of December 8, 2020 after I drove home from the masked and socially distant village with the half moon shining high in my windshield. It took me a while to get it right, going through rewrites over the following week. 

Advent 2020

Snow blows through, snow melts away.
Things come and things go – but mostly
go as 2020 wanes toward winter.

Southeast hangs a hazy half moon
upon the falling gloom, like a lone lamp
at the edge of the darkened village,

like a white mask across a black face
in the ICU at night amid the twinkling
pea lights of monitors and ventilators,

like a heart half of hope and half of fear.
All winter the winnowing will run while
the world leans on luck and awaits its shot.

I lean against the kitchen window looking out
at this halfling light that sails upon the night
and send after it all my silent prayers.

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Bearing Up

Photo: Jon Sullivan, public domain

Wildlife are taking advantage of reduced human activity during the pandemic to show up in places where they are seldom seen. A bear moving into the stretch between Hannawa Falls and Potsdam has been the cause of some excitement, especially when he turned up half a block from downtown in Ives Park. The coming COVID winter is one I wish I could hibernate through. Wake me up when the vaccine is here.

Bearing Up

I envy the bear that rambles this stretch of river
same as me, cutting through back yards at night, 
riling up the dogs, even lumbering into the village
now and then to enjoy the peace of the park.

Soon he will burrow up to sleep the winter away,
leaving me at my window to watch blowing snow.
Leaving me holed up just like him but unsleeping
while the plague harvests its bumper crop of souls.

I envy his long slow dreams of bees and honey
while he sleeps off the fat of the year, envy
his thoughtlessness, oblivious to the times,
certain that nothing will trouble him ’til the thaw.

You, I see, are sleeping now; I hear your soft
snoring from under the flannel-wrapped comforter.
I take what comfort I can from that. In a little while
I will try to join you, if only until another morning.

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Red Sandstone Trail Nocturne

The Red Sandstone Trail runs between my home and the west shore of Sugar Island Flow on the Racquette River. I’ve been walking it since my teenage years, long before the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club improved it beyond the original deer track and bushwack. It’s not wilderness – running by dams and p0werhouses, sandstone quarry and penstock – but wild enough and unpeopled enough to do. There are woods and rapids and stretches where nothing made by human hand is visible, and the full variety of North Country plants, trees and wildlife appear somewhere along its stretch.

Red Sandstone Trail Nocturne

It’s best to walk these woods alone,
to look, listen, breathe, smell, move –
being quiet, becoming still, balm for
the dizzy clamor of another working day.

It’s near enough night for the shift change.
Deer drift down to drink dark water, a beaver
slaps the surface to call her family home.
The owl’s eyes open wide and swivel. 

Trees, spent of glory, stand stark except
for the sheltered understory which bears
a meager spray of amber lamps. Shoes swish
beside the river running black in half-light.

Near November, yes, it’s best to walk alone.
What would talk add to the evening chorus?
Were I singing, each evensong would praise
this wild world itself as Word made flesh.

When shadows go full dark, a glow begins
upriver where the moon will rise and
another downriver where street lights
in the village infuse a far flock of clouds.

Up this dim lit trail, I follow my nose like
a dog, past piercing pine, scuffed duff,
pungent scat, the bite of sumac, and
at last, the backyard’s new-mown grass.

Back again in my right-angled nest of wood,
bright as day and warm as summer, I shed
coat and shoes and pull down all the shades.
Outside, the wild world spins on toward dawn.

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Election Reflection

Photo: Mycatkins, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

While I was doomscrolling through the day’s news of politics and pandemic, the wind began to rise. I didn’t really notice at first, until I began to mistake it for a distant train passing through the village. Then the “train” arrived in a twister of maple leaves outside the window and the house began to shake. Each gust stronger than the last. The weather outside, the clamor on my screen and the weather in my head converged into extended metaphor.

Election Reflection

From far off, a low susurration heralds its coming.
On the next hill leaves fly, pennants of golden smoke.
Then louder, higher, the nearby treetops begin to 
bob and dance, the windows rattle, the studs groan.

Louder still, rising and falling, pines rock back
and forth, worrying at their roots. Saplings bow
and snap back. Wheelie bins flop open and topple.
Yard signs tear loose, cartwheeling down the road.

Hold tight; anything could happen – windows blow
in, roof rip away, hailstones the size of baseballs
pounding the car to junk. You never know what
big wind will bring, or what will still be standing.

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Another rainy Monday

As we teeter on the brink of the election and a third peak of the pandemic, it’s the little ordinary things that stubbornly remain ordinary that I find so discombobulating.

Given the tumult of event and emotion, there should be fireballs in the sky, chasms collapsing underfoot, not one day after another, same as it ever was. Mind and world refuse to rhyme.

Another rainy Monday

On another rainy Monday the leaves show gold
and lemon and brown against the greens of pine
and cedar. Election signs drip in the yard. No
pressing business, I refill my coffee mug and sip.

On my screen, the COVID tracker tells me I live
in the current hotspot of the county. On my screen
the electoral map shows my guy doing pretty well.
In social feeds my virtual friends strongly urge me:

to pray, to vote, to wear a mask, to wash my hands, 
to send money, to feel outrage, to be afraid – very
afraid. They say the world is burning. They say we’re
all gonna die! They say their scream jars are full up.

It’s another rainy Monday morning in America and
flags hang limp, as if exhausted from all that waving.
But leaves are still leaves, coffee still coffee, and
there is leftover homemade apple pie for breakfast.

The ordinary strangely endures, the river and clouds.
But fear and loathing too go on and on – tightness
in the chest, hypervigilance, angry mind milling stone
to dust. Waiting, waiting on the advent of the awful.

On another rainy Monday the ragged crows perch
still, squirrels stash away their winter plunder,
business as usual. Cars go back and forth from home
to village. All things ordinary behind their masks.

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In the fall of fever, 10/8/20

On this day, the official COVID-19 death toll in America hit 213,000. It could have been any unimaginably large number, but was this. I wanted to capture indirectly the feeling of waiting and grief and isolation, of anxiety too long endured and of foreboding brought forth by ongoing social unrest and political strife. I was aided in this writing by the nonstop booming of rifles and shotguns being sighted in by my neighbors getting ready to enter the woods in camouflage.

In the fall of fever, 10/8/20

Two hundred thirteen thousand leaves
have fallen in the yard. They fall all day
and keep falling all night while wind
waxes and wanes like the Harvest Moon.

And after moonset, two hundred thirteen
thousand stars spray out across
the firmament, recalling all the fireflies
of summer, but cold now and still.

Two hundred thirteen thousand raindrops
drum on the roof just before dawn,
jolting me from restless sleep to stare
at the ceiling until my heartbeat slows.

This day will darken early, and earlier still
each day. Soon the trees will strip naked
to embrace the snow. Soon the hunters
will stalk with long guns their merry prey.

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Gathering Chi

Chinese character "chi," life energy

In my Facebook feed the other day was a picture of muppets from Sesame Street saying “The year 2020 is brought to you by the letters W, T and F.” Too true.

In my Tai Chi class, we start by warming up with a set of Qigong exercises, one of which, described in the opening lines, gives this poem its title.

This is a time when we all need to find a still point of balance and take a breath.

Thanks to Gimli, son of Gloin for the closing quote.

Gathering Chi

Feet at shoulder width, toes forward,
hands at waist, turned in. Roll hands,
lift arms out and up, breathing in, up
to steeple. Turn hands down and push
to waist, breathing out. And repeat.

I asked a teacher what to do with all
the energy that arose from meditation.
She said energy is everywhere, just
reach out. If too much, bow more –
eight full prostrations, or 16, or 108.

On the other hand, tonglen meditation
tells us to breathe in suffering, and to
breathe out compassion, becoming
sort of a MERV-13 filter made of meat.
Whatever it takes to heal the world.

The Bible says that God breathed us
up from dirt, and that every breath
we take contains that same breath.
Such we need and such is provided.
“Keep breathing, that’s the key.”

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Waiting Room

When times are dark and seem to be getting darker, sweet pastoral reflections feel a little disingenuous.

Waiting Room

Each of these lines contains five silent prayers,
accent falling on the silence. Rhyme scheme
is irregular as nothing is similar to anything.

Voice is only person – mask over my mouth
muffling words beyond hearing across vast
social distance – what little one can find to say.

Half a year now in the waiting room. Who can say
how much longer? The clock says only tick-tock,
heart says only lub-dup. What else can be said?

Wildfire will be quenched or wildfire will spread;
America will fall or will find some way forward.
The waiting room is empty but for the waiting.


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Reading Chinese poets

Hanshan and Shide, detail, 15th Century hanging scroll. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I first started reading Chinese poetry in high school. transporting myself from small-town ’60s America into mountains and rivers without end.

Now I find myself going back to the first books I bought for myself back then and re-reading them (and me) through 60-something eyes.

Reading Chinese poets

When I was young, I imagined
how fine it would be to get drunk
in the moonlight by the river
in the company of Li Po.

Now, having grown long in the tooth,
I’d prefer a mountain hut like Hanshan’s,
but with my host gone off on a long ramble.
Who can think with all his chatter?


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In the Summer of Fever

Corn field in summer. Royalty-free stock photo

When I wrote “In the Spring of Fever,” I hoped that one season would do it. Alas. This poem came to me out of the weird congruence between such a beautiful summer and the grinding fear and anxiety of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating.

In the Summer of Fever

Day after day flotillas of cumulus fly
through bright skies. Rain falls scant
and brief, barely wetting the ground
before the sun breaks through again.

How to reconcile such splendor, all
this shining, with the weight of worry
like the smoke of distant forest fire
hanging day and night upon the air.

Masked children huddle close to moms
and dads in the store. Silent people wait
for takeout the regulation six feet apart
rocking on their heels with arms crossed.

How can the sky be all a-riot with sunset
while my heart fills with lights and sirens?
It twists up the brain like fever dreams.
How can the dying be only just begun?

No one will speak of it. Will it be me?
Will it be worse than me? Don’t ask.
Unload the groceries and cook the dinner.
Do the next thing, then try to go to sleep.


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