Keeping a Fern Alive in the High Plains

I’m guessing the last thing Custer saw
wasn’t the pied pony dead,
or the infecting iron of the arrow
looping through the air,
the leather of a cartridge belt,
dropped when the man dropped,
but the colorless grass of that knoll in Montana.
It is hard somehow not to blame
the ground for the sky.

Against reason I hang Boston ferns
in the corners of the living room,
and for several weeks, over-fertilized,
still lush for nursery customers,
they pop like vegetable fireworks.

And still for weeks against reason
I take them out to the porch when they pale,
water them again, talk sweetly,
sing them songs of the Queen Charlottes
and Scapa Flow lullabies
when they go,

and think ruefully, comically,
how nothing survives the high plains —
when of course nothing survives
the channel and the undercliff.
We just die wetter on the coast.

Or wonder,
when I put another one out with the trash,
if they dreamed, still damp,
in their dark green potted plastic,
of the shortgrass prairie and the chaparral,
if they were tempted,
like the sibyl suspended in a glass cage,
or the boy in the bubble,
to exit, to open the door,
to say the hell with it,
to hell with all our circumstances
and sentences,
I’m going anyway.

Persistence Hunting

Everything I know I learned in the wild.

Find water first.
In the heat, find shade.
Wake early.
Eat late.
Adapt.
Take the high ground
and be quiet about it.
When attacked,
fight tooth and claw.
Wear your skin,
your beautiful skin, unknowing,
and when the sky turns
black as your eyes and the stars
arrange themselves in your image,
disappear.
Leave that counterfeit behind.

Survive,
but failing that
lie down, sleep,
and in your other dreams,
through the creeping shade,
chase self-pity til it falls.
They call it persistence hunting:
chase it running until it falls,
collapses, withers on the bone.

Lie down now and sleep.
The cold will take you.
These things were never meant to last.

Burrow Poem

They say the ermine will kill
even when it isn’t hungry,
slipping through dry corn
like a wisp, a flicker of light
from a passing car, and then quick
at the back of the neck.
The local mastiffs stay in the barn.

And they say the ermine makes its home
sometimes in the den of its prey,
jealous of the memory
of the poor beast’s comfort,
decorating the place
with the skin and fur
of its targets.

But it may be misunderstood.
It’s in a state of perpetual
metamorphosis, after all,
and over the years my words, too,
have changed color in the snow,
marked by cinders from railyard fires.
They’ve also rubbed their teeth sharp,
but against the strop of better writers.
So now I send them out in the dark.

When they don’t come back
I imagine them warm
in the burrows of skulls,
shuffling insomniac
to the mouth of the den,
the arctic night
dressing itself in silk,
hiding the moon for camouflage.

from Deirdre Remembers a Glen

Fruitful glen of fish-filled pools
rounded hills of lovely wheat;
the memory brings me great distress,
glen of bees and the wild horned ox.

Glen of cuckoo, thrush, and blackbird,
precious cover for every fox;
glen of garlic, green with cress,
flowering clover curly-crested.

The clear cries of the red-backed deer
under the oak-thick ridge
gentle hinds and they so timid
well hidden in the wooded glade.

Glen of the red berried rowan
fruit fit for every flock of birds,
fatted badgers slumbering
quiet in burrows with their young.

Glen of the silent blue-eyed hawk
glen of the bountiful harvest
sheltered every side by pointed peaks
glen of the wild plum and blackberry.

Glen of the sleek-brown flat-nosed otter
leaping lightly, freely fishing,
many are the stately white-winged swans,
salmon spawning in the stony brook.

Glen of the star-tangled yew
dew-touched glen of gentle kine
glen of the shining chalk-white sun
and graceful women, perfect as pearls.

(Irish, poss. 14th century; a reworking from three published versions)

English Lessons

The pebble of a word drops through
the smooth circumference of my student’s ear.
It falls, unbending
with a kind of murder in its fall
(ruthless as bulls and plumb bobs
and pigeon shot).

Between his pauses I listen for its splash,
so far below our twisted knot of speech
we almost couldn’t hear.

Minds are more like wells, I suppose,
than steel machines,
than the cowling of an F-16,
bouncing words like fractured light.
I’ve seen sixth grade girls
incinerate a thought,
sucking up the ash;
at other times ambivalent
a flower receiving a fly.

But above all, and either way,
receiving receiving.

Nothing worries like a word.
What have I done?
And why this word? Why then?

And what creeps up from that well:
the cannibal bird,
the crooked beak of heaven?

Madly, Deeply

There is only one life lesson,
and that is to grow things
with your own hands,
holding late April in her thin stalks,
wanting madly, deeply to grow,
needing madly, deeply to die,
to wither yellow.

The rest of it — the details,
the numbers and the lengths,
are like the magazines you read
in doctors’ waiting rooms,
idly taking what you find because it’s there,
idly leafing through but not subscribed,
the way we are subscribed
to the watery light of five o-clock,
the soft snow that fell overnight,
the deckle-edge daffodils already
bowing and browning,

subscribed to the stream that courses
through the deep ravine, raging and falling,
seeping, drying, gone
while we are summer sleeping,
subscribed to the heart-faced hyssop
and the houndstongue,
mouldering earth and bonemeal,
prom dances, promises, and handfasting,
in the humus, hen manure
and the worm castings,
cupping late April in her thin stalks,

saying our goodbyes
to the nursery newborns,
holding our new daughters
close to our chests like specters, weeping.

September, Clearing Brush

I take a bag and the machete
down into the ravine
where at snowmelt the ephemeral stream
slips unnoticed
under the plantain and the nettle,
among the wild rose and the great cottonwood.

But end of summer
belongs to the bull thistle,
a legion of it tall as linemen,
packed so dense between the sloping sides
you can barely raise an arm
without one stalk or another
stinging.

I shuffle skeletal,
a string of white stones
covered with flesh and leaf,
the centrifugal swing of the blade,
the smell of vanilla from the dead stalks,
cotton seed flying in the air,
the smell of paper paste and lavender,
my sweat under the pommel
slick as blood.

And perhaps it’s the narrow defile,
the thick wood behind,
but I think of the queen of the Iceni
arrayed against the Romans,
driving her raped daughters ahead,
so sure of winning,
the tribal women watched in wagons
on the flanks of that great lost mass.

Did it ever smell like lavender
in the butcher’s work of the afternoon?
Did any legionnaire swinging the short sword
in the crush of green stems
stop for the incongruous vanilla
and the bright birds singing
in the thistledown snowing?

Did he
like me
knowing I’d just brought eighty thousand
thistle seeds closer to the ground,
ground into the earth by my boots,
see spring translating into spring,
life passed in a wintering whisper,
and think revenge,
even freedom,
is a small flag to raise on futility,
when given the choice we could
lead with love,
with hopeless love.