I have long used a hand-colored detail of the so-called Flammarion engraving as a visual identifier for my website and for my nascent publishing company, Liberty Street Books. But I have never before written an ekphrastic poem using the piece. Mischief managed.
The face of the sun and the face of the moon, stars hung like lanterns from the rafters of the night, these we know. The homely village beside still water, the fields and hills, everyday furnishings of everyday life, these we know.
But then, perchance in dreams, or on our knees at the edge of who we are, the world lets slip her veil and we are shown wheels within wheels, the many-layered onion of chaos, transfixed by flames and clouds and rainbows of eternity.
Who would believe it? What words contain such vastness? Only stare agape while the vision runs until the vision fades back into an ordinary eye, a quotidian journey, and silence.
I’ve been reviewing nearly 20 years of Listening Post newsletters I wrote for North Country Public Radio and keep coming across excerpts of prose that easily convert to poetry. Here’s a poem extracted from a post about one of my naturalist obsessions, our native wild lily, the trillium.
Not gaudy and sociable like the daffodil, which permits itself to be herded chock-a-block into beds, trillium are modest and retiring.
Thriving in the most anemic of soil, they hide their beauty under partial shade. They keep a discreet distance from one another, lightly salted along the woodland trails.
Far from the profligate perfume of lilac, trillium cast no more aroma than cold spring water.
This falls into the category of things I had forgotten that I had written. The genre might be called pre-postmodern Luddite rant.
Down the iHole
First it ate the wall phone and the wires then all the clocks and all their ticking. It sucked in the printing presses and the logging trucks that kept them fed. The tape recorder and the answering machine, the typewriters which are no more. The radio, movie theaters and TVs, even the remote– the telegraph and post office have both fallen in.
It ate the library and the bookstore, the living room bookcases, the stereo and the record store, all nine feet of my vinyl. The cartographer, the atlas, and the gazette– all tamped down in. The social clubs, the stadium, the notebook and the pen, large stuff and small stuff, all stuffed in.
The camera, the photo album, the wallet and the little black book. All the computers and monitors, keyboards, cables and mice. The calculator and the shopping cart. The weatherman is inside it, and the anchorman. All the board games, casinos, puzzles, toys. The fitness center, the coach, the tutor, the translator. All the stuffing has been removed from all my stuff, leaving just this hard handful buzzing in my pocket.
I’m a little behind the season with this. I kept going back to it, revising, revising revisions, dropping stanzas, rewriting the closing more than once. Now bluets, daffodils, and hyacinths are blooming too, in the churchyard and around the village. But this is about the very first of the little resurrections.
Nothing in bloom but a few snowdrops and coltsfoot: the first along a sunny wall in the yard and the latter on the river trail that runs from the graveyard into town. Though neither is native to this sparse North Country upland, it’s easy to see why settlers planted them here.
When winter drags on then slumps into mud season, itself a pallid purgatory, who can wait for trillium, for apple blossoms, for lilacs that still are weeks away? In the language of flowers, the snowdrop spells hope. And they are said to counteract poison. Can you feel it?
Bluet, daffodil, hyacinth, iris, tulip, day lily, tiger lily. It’s not so much their blooming as knowing that they will bloom, each in turn — an Easter faith each spring renews, thawing out the stony heart of winter — saved, as Mary Oliver once said, “by the beauty of the world.”
Roots stir the dirt, groping down toward water, stems break duff, groping up toward light. After the leaves, buds that bloom, blow, and seed. What is this if not salvation? Whether it be angel or heron so high above the foothills, the sun, buttery as coltsfoot, has created a new morning.
It’s such a relief, when coming back to town after a couple days away, to find the house still atop the cellar hole, with no trees come through the roof or any evidence of fire damage, that it takes a while to notice that some miscreant drove onto the yard, flattened the mailbox, and then drove away. Who does such a thing and why, I wonder…
Dead Mailbox Daydream
First thing I noticed was the tire tracks in the grass and then the flattened and shattered mailbox there, door flopped open like the lolling tongue of roadkill. To be clear, this was never an object in the prime of life. It had fallen apart before and was rehabilitated (by me) with 100 feet of clothesline and some granny knots.
And later, one of our contractors, once he had finished laughing, put it back right with screws, nuts, and bolts. Though its best days were long behind it, that still was no excuse for summary execution, for going hit and run. As I pull a hardware store replacement from the back seat of my car, I begin to picture that final fatal moment:
A drunk behind the wheel of one of those trucks puffed up on steroids, you know, with the thumping bass beats, a pair of truck nuts a-dangle from the ball hitch, diesel, of course, with vertical stacks and a rack of extra lights. While chair-dancing to a lame country pop tune, he knocks over a five-hour energy drink, swerving right into my yard.
Digging the hole for the new mailbox I picture his karma, after seas rise and diesel costs a $100 a gallon, swapping the grandiose relic for a rusty bicycle with a broken chain. Or perhaps he fills the cab two feet deep in dirt to make a cold frame, eking out his diet with early fresh produce, or he swaps it for a guitar so he can play lame country pop.
On the other hand, I could be totally wrong, showing bias. So I think again, as I pound the post into loosened soil. It could have been some old fart taking the back road home from the reservation smokeshop, who ate two gummies in the parking lot while sitting in his restored ’67 Valiant. It could have been coming on hard as he ran the s-curves.
He could have been hallucinating a half dozen spectral deer in the road and chose to kill my mailbox as the lesser evil. He could have stopped to clear his head unsuccessfully, waiting for the waves of visual rushes to abate, but then the sky began to fill with UFOs from horizon to horizon and he fled in fear. I forgive him. It could happen to anyone.
I was feeling agitated the other night. It was an old familiar feeling of confinement, constraint, that 30 years of sobriety has not erased. But later, when I began to hear the storm in the distance, I realized it was low barometric pressure and ozone coming together with memory to push all my buttons.
Wanting the Storm to Break
In the falling dusk the red maple leaf buds dim to violet, the greening grass grays and the pines blacken. The sky is iron end to end, fading down, fading down toward night.
The woodpecker that pounded all day has finally wearied. Squirrels that ran up/down/up rest quiet now, nose in tail. Only I at my window and the hawk in the fir still keep watch.
It takes no genius to know the sharp-shinned hawk’s mind — ever red with appetite, pitiless and free — but what of me? Once the last light fails, the window makes a muddy mirror.
“If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much,” I’ve said — from experience, too. Would that I could take my own advice. Long ago, when this mood was on me, I’d wander lamp-lit streets,
head downtown where liquor poured to pounding rock & roll, or drive half the night, hoping someone’s light would be lit, or sit in the dark below the roaring dam, red with appetite and free,
if for a moment only. I’ve had the American kind of luck in life — to be free from need, but rarely free from wanting. Wanting more, though I can’t say what, wanting whatever it is you got.
And now the air has gone electrical and I smell the oncoming rain. There is thunder in the distance, drawing near, and flashing light. If it storms wild enough, long enough, I might lose myself to sleep.
Over time, most people begin to revise the past a little, romanticize it, pretty it up. I may do so myself when I come to the later 1960s, but my memories of the ’50s and early ’60s seem to come through without a rosy glow. But I do wonder how much of history one can credit, once the events have passed out of the direct memory of the living.
When we moved in, this village burned coal. The landslide roar of a full ton of anthracite pouring down a steel ramp into the coal bin is burned in my brain. The molten heat on my face when feeding the furnace and shaking down the ash, the sulfuric reek of it that stained the air from October through April still is burned in my brain.
Our driveway was built of coal ash, a couple feet longer every year, and more ash piled by the back fence. At school, the track was a full quarter-mile of cinders. And all that smoke — snow gone gray by end of day, clean curtains gray by end of week, salmon sandstone and red brick blackened; windows opaque with soot.
At night I listened for the rumble of the ready flight, the B-52 with its nuclear cargo ever primed to fly over the Pole. It ran circles all night long from the SAC base on Lake Champlain. And at school we ducked and covered, assumed a similar bomber kept kids in Russia from sleep. I pictured their village, too, wrapped in its own fug of coal.
There was lead in the house paint then, mercury in the ash, DDT in the dirt and the water and the chicken drumsticks. Half the men in town had PTSD from WW1, or 2, or Korea, though they had no name for what was wrong. They drank and smoked at the hotel bar and worked themselves into heart attacks for overtime pay in the pot room at Alcoa.
That world, that village has blown away like the coal haze on a fresh west wind. The old cellars have been remodeled into rec rooms, laundries, man caves. Grass has grown over the ash piles as decades of rain have leached out the toxins and leaf litter has rotted down to soil. Smokestacks are gone, as are the jobs that kept them smoking, and the old folks, too.
Memory, these cinders of the past, are all that remain of them. And when we who remember have passed — what? The tales of trench warfare and of bootleggers will join the lore of loggers and river drivers, quarrymen and midwives, charcoal burners and farriers, nurses and wheelwrights, who bled into histories seldom-read.
The hinge of the season is an interesting time. Not the one, not the other, but blending both. Its own thing, really, were we not so ingrained in our dualisms. April only seems a cruel month if you have no memory of January.
As April Comes
As April comes, winter wrestles spring again, winning one day, losing the next, losing more and more often as the southwest wind gusts in, drives rain, liquefies the stinking soil, hooking up jumper cables to the life which bides sleeping.
And inside me, where life has also lain sleeping, I hear the wakeup call of the roaring night wind. Its electricity in my brain shakes me from sleep. I emerge from blankets like a bear from its lair and stumble-foot to the kitchen to make coffee.
Water stands now in those hollows of the yard that yesterday held snow. Good; good. Too long has this world been frozen. A bit of greening by the south-facing wall, which tomorrow (should weather hold) might pop a spray of snowdrops.
A day, for once, for walking ’round the village: going to the church for tai chi, going to the stores for food and resupply, chatting with friends not seen for months, moving on to the diner for gossip, burger, fries — a day for the library.
A day, perhaps, for driving nowhere in particular, just because the roads are clear and because the winter coat, the hat, gloves, scarf, and boots can stay behind in the hallway back at home. A day of lightness, warmth, and ease. Yes, please.
As winter ends, but before it really ends, it’s sort of Rip Van Winkle, sort of dubya-tee-eff. Tomorrow might be “Remember me?”– back to drifts, shivers, shovels, back to hunker down. But that’s what makes today so sweet. It’s freeze and thaw that makes the sap run.
While I have never seen the creator behind creation, and have no information to impart about what it all means and how it all ends, I feel that creative force whenever I look upon the beauties of creation. And never more so than when times are at their worst.
Beyond our Power
Driving the wounded woods across the county I see cumulus clouds pile up through blue, floating like a wedding cake above the shambles of winter.
Later, as the equinox sunset burns in the west lurid as “the fire next time,” I can hardly keep my eyes from it as I pull into the village.
There, in the recital hall, a trio — clarinet, cello, piano — plays Brahms. If they can conjure up such beauty and still not weep, what excuse have I?
Though all four Horsemen now ride roughshod, still, creation refuses to be anything less than beautiful. Explain this to me if you can:
How the death of millions dims not a single star, how the moon floats untouched above the sea off Odessa, just as if there was some power beyond our power.
The other day I fell into the war news and couldn’t climb back out. While I should have been in meditation in my Tai Chi class, rockets and bombs were in my mind. My dreams were hellish and it all seemed too freakin’ much. My friend Karen, who runs a crisis hotline, told me it is too freakin’ much and this is why…
News of the World
According to Karen, our bodies haven’t figured out that we no longer hunt and gather, living in small clans, that we can drive cross-country, fly around the planet. She says we are built for the caves and the steppes and for knapping flint points, same as we have ever done.
We are built to cope with only such trauma as can be found within a day’s ride on horseback. We aren’t meant to know about the child in the well in South America, the shooter in the Midwest schoolhouse. Distance should shield us from the bodies in rocket fire rubble across the sea.
It is enough to deal with knowing how fire displaced dozens of families elsewhere in the county, or that an enraged man shot his partner in the neck in the next village to the west. We just aren’t equipped to bear the news of the world. The talk of the diner weighs heavily enough.