His autopsy showed a fatty liver
and not, as some would have thought, a cinder.
There was note of pneumonia
complicit in his death,
but as with all the other autopsies before him
the cause was put down as life.
Outside the Chelsea Hotel some tut-tutted.
Life again, they said.
They knew the stories:
that with a dram or a sniff here or there,
him being a credit to Wales,
his kind tended to song.
It didn’t take much.
Rumor had it as many as five women
had a restraining order against him
for singing too close to the house,
and wandering in the fields in just his undies
mumbling synonyms for anthracite.
Anything could set him off —
grain instead of beer,
smoke instead of malt,
thin light on a cox.
He preferred a kind word
to a cruel joke,
a cruel word to a cliché.
He was a king, of course,
but not of column inches.
He traced his lineage to that obscure
Owain, Glaw, or Alun who, the stories say,
when the bows and the knives
were put away,
rose in front of the fire
and sang against the darkness.
In Cape Breton, perhaps, some fiddler
could tell me what it means:
it’s the only place I’ve tracked the phrase —
a reel by that name that plays in the Dungreen Set
after “The Primrose Lasses”.
And for him, I’m sure,
there was no connection
when he offered up the line
one morning in a sales meeting,
off-hand, slightly abashed.
He said, “So I told him where
the bear goes in the buckwheat.”
I know very little about bears
but I do know it’s
always the imagined bear
that disturbs our sleep.
The real bear roots in the furze,
tunes out the hiker,
and then turns away
to his termites and his truth.
The image remains from that day —
the animal’s brown flanks
disappearing among the grain,
the stalks shuffling shut behind,
the rooks wheeling in the prairie sky,
and the field left
undisturbed for memory.
For Jeff B, dead of a heart attack
Crows and ravens both,
they tell us about change.
A famous crow in Vancouver has gone missing;
his mate hops the fence expectantly,
and at the same time, here in the foothills
a young crow in distress
circles our house, calling plaintively.
She has lost something:
a parent or a plan, the usual pattern of things.
For the Druids, these black birds
stand between us and the other world.
For them, the raven is Bran, the healer,
though sometimes we heal into loss.
Sometimes we are missing from the old world,
sloughing it off with illness.
Hope and horror both
have their hands on that gate.
The black juvenile circles me
on my morning walk along the Hogback,
drawing a net around my lack of superstition.
She has something urgent to tell me
in what can be
the static doldrums of late summer,
in the season’s dangerous inactivity:
child-changer, she calls,
child, teacher of the man.
No more than a few steps from the bottom of the stair,
on my way down the hill to get the newspaper,
in the green shoots of ribbon grass where
climbing roses had begun to bud, I saw
a white plastic label with a pointed end —
the kind they put on potted plants to name,
give preferences for full or partial sun.
This advertised a pink geranium, long gone,
covered by growth, invisible in summer
in what drought-resistant brush grew
in the high plains of the Rockies.
I knew at once the woman who lived here
just before us placed it there.
I’d found other labels
clearing the border at the front of the house:
for pansies and yellow tea roses.
They’d all perished, of course,
and only plastic labels stayed,
stubborn for her hope,
enduring the two-foot snows,
the rabbits and the deer, the desiccating cold
that sapped the moisture
from my lemon thyme and sage — but these stayed,
stubborn for her hopeful hands.
When we closed, they drove up
and showed us round.
He took a clipping from the cactus
in the living room, while she sat in the car
(she smiled weakly in the realtor’s office,
made a joke as we signed the papers;
her oxygen tank discreetly sighed).
I looked out on her calm white head
gazing through the window of the Oldsmobile
where the sage and ribbon grass grew wild,
those two months before we heard she’d died.
You’re at a formal gathering — say hello and state your name.
Say something like Hey, I’m first name.
You may also want to say the name of the other person first.
You’ll need to walk and stand with confidence.
Mention that you like to eat pizza and ice cream and going to the beach:
something they will find interesting and compelling,
like how you pour cold water down your back
because it helps you move faster and keep the right posture.
You’ll want a full, firm web-to-web handshake.
Test your handshake on several folks before important introductions.
Don’t stare down at some aimless point or at the corner of the other person.
Instead, be anything you are interested in.
Listen to my daughter —
she mentions that she likes to eat pizza
and ice cream and go to the beach.
Or you can just say Hi everyone,
it’s great to meet you Mary.
Their voices, fatted with gossip
and nimble as bats spun out of the dark
conjure backshed bottles
weeping unpronounceable spirits.
And their scarves touch singingly,
the two nodding Easter eggs of their heads
spring and relax,
their mouths red with exclamations.
A ruddy hand, mottled like sausage,
touches her sister’s
as they pass the Ukrainian church
and its gilded saints.
A man gets up, a sober Canadian man
in a doeskin shirt,
leans cheek to cheek
with this good Canadian woman.
“Can’t you speak English?” he says.
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