Cherishing What Isn’t
Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this
long life, along with the few others.
And the four I may have loved, or stopped short
of loving. I wander through these woods
making songs of you. Some of regret, some
of longing, and a terrible one of death.
I carry the privacy of your bodies
and hearts in me. The shameful ardor
and the shameless intimacy, the secret kinds
of happiness and the walled-up childhoods.
I carol loudly of you among trees emptied
of winter and rejoice quietly in summer.
A score of women if you count love both large
and small, real ones that were brief
and those that lasted. Gentle love and some
almost like an animal with its prey.
What is left is what’s alive in me. The failing
of your beauty and its remaining.
You are like countries in which my love
took place. Like a bell in the trees
that makes your music in each wind that moves.
A music composed of what you have forgotten.
That will end with my ending.
Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock
I can support it no longer.
Laughing ruefully at myself
For all I claim to have suffered
I get up. Damned nightmarer!
It is New Hampshire out here,
It is nearly the dawn.
The song of the whippoorwill stops
And the dimension of depth seizes everything.
The whistles of a peabody bird go overhead
Like a needle pushed five times through the air,
They enter the leaves, and come out little changed.
The air is so still
That as they go off through the trees
The love songs of birds do not get any fainter.
The last memory I have
Is of a flower that cannot be touched,
Through the bloom of which, all day,
Fly crazed, missing bees.
As I climb sweat gets up my nostrils,
For an instant I think I am at the sea,
One summer off Cap Ferrat we watched a black seagull
Straining for the dawn, we stood in the surf,
Grasshoppers splash up where I step,
The mountain laurel crashes at my thighs.
There is something joyous in the elegies
Of birds. They seem
Caught up in a formal delight,
Though the mourning dove whistles of despair.
But at last in the thousand elegies
The dead rise in our hearts,
On the brink of our happiness we stop
Like someone on a drunk starting to weep.
I kneel at a pool,
I look through my face
At the bacteria I think
I see crawling through the moss.
My face sees me,
The water stirs, the face,
Gets knocked from its bones.
I weighed eleven pounds
At birth, having stayed on
Two extra weeks in the womb.
Tempted by room and fresh air
I came out big as a policeman
Blue-faced, with narrow red eyes.
It was eight days before the doctor
Would scare my mother with me.
Turning and craning in the vines
I can make out through the leaves
The old, shimmering nothingness, the sky.
Green, scaly moosewoods ascend,
Tenants of the shaken paradise,
At every wind last night’s rain
Comes splattering from the leaves,
It drops in flurries and lies there,
The footsteps of some running start.
From a rock
A single trickle like a strand of wire,
Breaks into beads halfway down.
The birds fly off
But the hug of the earth wraps
With moss their graves and the giant boulders.
In the forest I discover a flower.
The invisible life of the thing
Goes up in flames that are invisible,
Like cellophane burning in the sunlight.
It burns up. Its drift is to be nothing.
In its covertness it has a way
Of uttering itself in place of itself,
Its blossoms claim to float in the Empyrean,
A wrathful presence on the blur of the ground.
The appeal to heaven breaks off.
The petals begin to fall, in self-forgiveness.
It is a flower. On this mountainside it is dying.
The Last Perfect Season
No one knew it then, but that was the last
perfect season, the last time sky and earth
were so balanced that when we walked,
we flew, the last time we could pick a crate
of strawberries every morning in June,
the last time the mystical threshing
machine appeared at the edge of the field,
dividing the oats from the chaff, time of
hollyhocks and sprinklers, white clouds over
a tin roof. Everyone we knew was young then.
Our mothers wore dresses the color of
dove wings, slim at the waist, skirts flaring
just enough to let the folds drape slightly,
like the elegant suits our fathers wore,
shirts so white they dazzled even
the grainy eye of the camera when
we looked down into the viewfinder to
press the button that would keep us there,
as if we already knew that this was
as good as it was ever going to get.
Sharon Van Etten and Zach Condon.
A few words go a long way between us;
as they must, since not much time
remains for more than this.
I saw you standing on the fire escape,
arms spread wide to catch the setting sun,
head tossed back, shoulders
flirting with the shadows,
as if you could elude the waning day,
or time and again could become one,
or time could stand still between lovers,
not knowing what tomorrow brings,
nor caring where yesterday we walked,
like phrases, not quite nonsense,
but with a logic and connection
not at all designed until they meet
in composition, improvised, like a blues—
no melody planned, but only trusting
our sense of intervals.
Perch, Amy Judd. Click over to her flickr for many more lovely images.
When I Was Straight
I did not love women as I do now.
I loved them with my eyes closed, my back turned.
I loved them silent, & startled, & shy.
The world was a dreamless slumber party,
sleeping bags like straitjackets spread out on
the living room floor, my face pressed into a
All night I woke to rain on the strangers’ windows.
No one remembered to leave a light on in the hall.
Someone’s father seemed always to be shaving.
When I stood up, I tried to tiptoe
around the sleeping bodies, their long hair
speckled with confetti, their faces blanched by the
I never knew exactly where the bathroom was.
I tried to wake the host girl to ask her, but she was
only one adrift in that sea of bodies. I was ashamed
to say they all looked the same to me, beautiful &
untouchable as stars. It would be years before
I learned to find anyone in the sumptuous,
Tinguage (hapax legomenon)
What you do to me. With me. What I’ve
Learned to do with you. A language
Of bliss, a sublingual, interlingual,
Bilingual tale that lasts from labial
Lark through the long light of dawn.
A trickle of terroir layered in taste, liquid
As thirst. More than touch, less than labor,
This lesson in tilt and lather. The tang of a lyre
Of skin, a lick of liberal tact in tandem.
Our own langue d’oc, turtled in time
And tinkered by thrill. It’s not lex, not law—
But logos, the tabor and talisman of love.
When I think of what it means not to marry
the high school sweetheart, but to find each other
as we did at ages thirty and forty, I think
of John and I singing along to an old cassette
of Jackson Browne on car trips, and how, as we sing,
a part of me is hearing the song for the first time
in Detroit, on WRIF with my first boyfriend
in his truck as he took curves, shifting hard and fast.
And probably John is making love with a black-haired girl
in the carpeted back of his van in 1979, out west,
the cassette new and popular, draining the battery.
How unlikely that we ended up traveling together
singing a song we each learned with someone else.
Neither of us minds that, the way we might have then.
Let the dogs run the wet meadow.
Don’t grumble unmapable sadness
at scouring pads of grey cloud abrading
the night sky. Quit fretting about the end
of everything while it’s unfolding. Whining
turns the brain to molasses. Regret clogs
arteries. Born empty-handed, we gawk
at circling hawks, stuff ourselves
with bread and sex. Maybe we scream
or sing. Philosophers say we’re made
of fire and smolder all our lives.
Then ash provides the most elegant
last transport imaginable. No need
for granite slabs or satin-lined coffins.
You’ll waft over your old haunts
as key scenes play out below. Something
in you strains to remember, could almost
narrate incinerated bits of prior lives.
The dogs blazing across the drenched
meadow were once you and you them,
avid, chasing rabbits, as the garrulous
world drawled on and on and on.
Sorrow walked in my clothes before I did. Flocks
of shadows followed me. One night I looked at the stars
I thought were gods until they disappeared. Some say
I smashed my father’s idols and walked away.
Or walked towards a desert of barren promises.
Or promises that are hummingbirds hovering for
a moment then drifting away. Even now, walking
towards that mountain, sometimes I will watch
my shadow sitting beneath a plane tree, casting dice,
ignoring my steps. Some of you made me a founder
but it was only that shadow. Some of you made me
your father, but it was yourselves you were describing.
You plant a tree, you dig a well, and it brings life,
that’s all. Everything else is the heart’s mirage.
Except what begins inside you. Except Sarah.
When she stepped inside my dream the curtains
shivered, whole mountains entered the room.
It always seemed a question of which love to honor.
The land I loved fills with fire. Who should we listen to?
It’s true, He offered the world and I offered only
myself. But I thought His words were coffins. I was
frantic for any scrap of shade. Now everything is
shade. Your old newspapers are taken up by the wind
like pairs of broken wings. Each window, each door is
a wound. One track erases another track. One bomb.
One rock, one rubber bullet. What can I tell you?
Where have you left your own morning of promises?
You remember Isaac, maybe Ishmael, but not the love
that led me there. Not Sarah. Just to hear the sound
of her eyelids opening, or her plants pushing the air
aside as they reach for the sun, twilight filling
her fingers like fruit. This afternoon a flock of doves
settled on my porch. Their silence took the shape
of all I ever wanted to say. Today, the miracle
you want aches inside the trees. Why believe
anything except what is unbelievable? I never
thought of it as a trial, not any of it. Now the leaves
turn into messages that are simply impossible to read.
The roots turn into roads as they break through
the surface. How can I even know what I mean?
Beneath the hem of night the rain falls asleep
on the grass. We have to turn into each other.
One heart inside the other’s heart. One love. One word.
Inside us, our shadows will walk into water,
the water will walk into the sky. Blind. Faithful.
Inside us the music turns into a flock of birds.
Theirs is a song whose promise we must believe
the way the moon believes the earth, the fire believes
the wood, that is, for no reason, for no reason at all.
At Gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.
From The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007).
How the Trees on Summer Nights Turn into a Dark River
how you can never reach it, no matter how hard you try,
walking as fast as you can, but getting nowhere,
arms and legs pumping, sweat drizzling in rivulets;
each year, a little slower, more creaks and aches, less breath.
Ah, but these soft nights, air like a warm bath, the dusky wings
of bats careening crazily overhead, and you’d think the road
goes on forever. Apollinaire wrote, “What isn’t given to love
is so much wasted,” and I wonder what I haven’t given yet.
A thin comma moon rises orange, a skinny slice of melon,
so delicious I could drown in its sweetness. Or eat the whole
thing, down to the rind. Always, this hunger for more.