My parents used to sit on the balcony
on Menorca in the mid-day heat
eating Spanish olives
and tossing the pits over.
We called it suntan lotion
and not sun block in those days,
and when we ran out, we used olive oil,
coating our English arms with it
until they glistened
like plucked chicken wings.
Each afternoon my father made the same joke:
how years later a whole grove
of olive trees would spring up
below our rented rooms,
against the stucco and the wrought iron,
in the red dirt.
He was wrong, of course.
No trees grew,
not the smell of my mother’s oil paints
when she painted in the cove,
not the depressions we left on the sand.
What grew was this olive,
the one I draw from my mouth
long after my parents are gone.
This one, gray-green,
cured, no longer bitter.
This one, purple-black,
pitched, its small flesh wrapping
an undegradable stone,
launched over the railing
among the goldfinches
in the Scots Pine.
The earth folds in on itself
and even in its dying
there is still a mist
rising from the river
among the red oaks,
the magnolia, and the poplar trees.
Enough to erase the horizon,
enough to say, with a loose stroke
or the smudge of a finger
we can make the scene less firm,
cloud the coming end,
still fill it with possibility:
exotic fruits, a new June,
newlyweds rafting the patient water,
their laughter hung on the leaves
like wind chimes.
Who doesn’t love a landscape?
We are all immortal in it,
despite the stone step where
we gathered for breakfast
near the balustrade.
I said, ‘Julia, the colors!’
She said, ‘I see, I see,’
though of course she couldn’t.
‘I met one of them once,’ she said.
‘Met who?’ we asked.
‘The tall one…I forget his name
— but he’s gone now.’
‘Yes,’ we said,
and the red oaks said yes, yes we know,
despite the mist still
rising from the river.
We slept in the thicket as we do,
our thoughts walking on spring ice
branch to branch, as they do,
hearing up from the damp night of the earth
the etching into leaf of the smallest spider:
the orb weaver
the grass spider spinning, spinning
in the filtered light.
And feeling under the coarse hair of our bodies,
under the needles of our skin,
the seismic shifting of the rock,
the dry rock, the rock on fire,
far, far down —
We wake fat some mornings, butter fat,
with our lips in leaf,
but some days inexplicably
I wake with muscled skin and hollow hair,
leaving the depression in the sumac
where our bodies have carved
hollows in the thicket, remembering
(the way we remember all fading dreams)
that I dreamed I was pale and almost hairless
with two straight and awkward legs,
coming and going through the copse
without asking and without permission,
closing the door of the great unnecessary house
in the morning, leaving,
and pocketing the keys.
For the third time in three years,
walking in the wilderness,
I surprise two moose,
a cow and a calf.
The cow complains, moves on
with a bovine grunt
calling the little one.
Her hair is edged with black,
the brown on her flanks so deep
you could drown in it.
She’s as tall as a draft horse and fast:
if she wanted to,
she could cover the ground between us
before I could stand up.
So I sit,
feeling a pinprick of guilt
for having intruded /
how can I take my place in the wild,
how can I be — what’s the phrase? —
a good animal,
without lightly disturbing it?
Nothing here wants me passive:
the forgotten relation come home
to mope and grieve,
the one who sits at the edge of the fire,
the one no one speaks to,
not the sky
not the rock
not the water and the water hemlock,
and not the bat-faced calf
his eyes fixed on mine
reluctant to leave.
The old man who used to own the house
is driven up by his niece
in a car with Wyoming plates.
It stops at the end of the drive.
They had probably come up just to see,
and then, me out on the deck
getting water to the spruce and daylilies
along the lines he had laid
even then, in his nineties.
We heard his wife had died,
but he didn’t mention her:
it was for the niece, to show her the view
and the tile and the wisteria,
to talk about the wild plum, the tame plum,
the peaches big as his fist,
the wrinkles in the road as deep as his.
He said when the house was new
the driveway was a solid piece of rock.
I pointed out how the lilacs
hadn’t bloomed this year and he nodded,
how the cicadas were bad,
how the wasps had left their paper nest.
I had taken it down,
afraid they would reclaim it,
though they hadn’t bothered us —
just flew back and forth along the deck
(he said I put those railings in).
We sat on the porch swing smiling,
time gone and the satisfaction of it,
the rings of the wasp nest
still white as death on the wall.
I broke like rock in the Caribou mines
I was the earth and not the gardener
I was the apple in winter
I stretched my hand when the pine trees slept
I trespassed with the cloud
I painted my skin in the Colorado
the cowbird and the hummingbird stopped
the forest curled around me like a cat
the dark ridge was a compass
the hill replaced my heart
the stream replaced my blood
the path opened in the dark
but I lay down beside it
for another traveler
and set myself on fire.
The turkey vultures were out
on the roof of the old stables
at the bottom of the neighbor’s lot;
another on the split rail fence,
another half dozen circling high above.
The magpies that had been nesting
in the ponderosa across the way
and chasing off redtail hawks
also made a fuss, bouncing and squawking,
diving into the dry grass:
mid-July in the high plains and hot.
I came within four feet of the fawn,
enough to walk into the shade
of the vultures’ wings and their deep pink heads.
He was mostly intact:
a big gash on a haunch,
spots still running along his side
like a promise of sunlight.
They stay with their mother the first summer
and we had seen them
working their way down the hill,
stopping at the sumac and the peach,
the doe always wary,
the fawns in the great dome of her gaze.
The day of the vultures,
she appeared and lay under the apple tree,
her udder full, ribs showing,
head heaving rhythmically every breath,
and she came back for three days
eating apples and drinking from the bird bath.
Getting back her strength.
The magpies also flew over from the stables
where they were eating her fawn,
and drank and splashed
in the bitter heat.
The earth understands wearing away,
it understands wear,
and for that reason it loves me like a child.
Last month a river took houses
where there were towns.
Canyon highways poured into the plain.
It took living rooms and bikes —
kids’ bicycles, lawn furniture,
cars, and then the lawn.
The stream near the shop
ran for seven weeks. I woke up
hearing water and not the wind.
It carved new rivers, new pain, new people.
Sitting out, I hear it whispering
that it loves me, sweet as August,
because the leaves stayed on the plum,
the aspen, and the Rocky Mountain maple
that we lost on Halloween.
Three o’clock, the river whispers
that it loves me like a girl.
Loves me like the girls on Richards Street.
It’s too hot to sleep.
I get up
and walk out into the living room
where suddenly I am astonished
by the beauty of everyday things:
how the rubber plant glows in the half-light,
how the dust and fur balled
in the crevice corner of the guest bathroom
is a cobweb of myrrh,
and how, unknown to me,
as though by a vengeful spell,
I have been living with jewels.
With feet bright as hammered gold,
the nails of my toes
thick as button pearls,
the skin on the back of my hand like vellum
where someone has written
praises to God in lampblack,
in broad calligraphic strokes.
Where eyelashes are gold wire
and the trees listen for my footfall.
They have gathered at the door.
The moon picks out
the furrows of their flesh.
We sit for a while, breathing together,
in a kind of majesty
until, with the new sun
again the dread of work,
irritation of things undone,
weight of unanswered mail,
the cold toast and the missed alarm,
I come to my senses.
You will learn that words
will survive nuclear winter
by eating cockroaches
but that your best idea is frost
on a warm finger:
it never loved you.
From Patrick Lane
you learn to raise words
like sticks and bright embers,
from Maya Angelou you learn
You learn humility and rage
from Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich,
balls-out bold from Whitman and Ginsberg.
You will learn that you have cataracts
where Annie Dillard has eyes,
that you come to speak poem
the way you found your physical voice:
imitate, emulate, absorb,
until your pores sweat words like garlic,
until your head hums a chorus
of sanskrit crickets,
leaf-blade swords, chariot whispers,
parrots the color of pomegranates
You will learn
that syllables eat like cats:
rarely when you want them to
and never what you have.
They want to eat doubt
and wild moss pink from your hands;
when you have fresh mangoes
they will want the salt and dead skin
from the corners of your mouth,
and when you have given up,
drained and dry,
they will run their
sandpaper tongues along the edges
of your sleeping thoughts.