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.

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